NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) The University of Rhode Island has broken ground on a $60-million biotech center intended to help catapult a fledgling life-sciences industry into a major economic force in the nation’s smallest state.
“This is about making URI really, really competitive for a lot of great things we do, but also making us much more important for economic development in the state of Rhode Island,” said Jeffrey Seemann, dean of URI’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences. “This new building will be the icon of the new economy of Rhode Island.”
Slated for completion in 2009, the 140,000-square-foot Center for Biotechnology and Life Sciences, which includes facilities to support genomics, proteomics, and DNA sequencing, marks the largest academic building project in the history of URI.
“We like to think of Rhode Island as the center of the Bio 95 corridor between Massachusetts and Connecticut,” said Kathie Shields, interim executive director of Tech Collective, referring to the interstate highway that runs along the Eastern seaboard.
The Tech Collective is a nonprofit alliance whose member groups include BioGroup, which promotes the state’s life-sciences industry “One of the things that’s becoming an offering is the fact that we’ve got this facility here … that can now be opened up to all of New England, that is right down the road from the Cambridge and Boston area.”
Shields added that Rhode Island’s universities, including URI, Brown, and Roger Williams University, offer “cluster brainpower” for the state’s fledgling life-sciences industry.
“We see [the center] from a research standpoint as a focal point for research not only by people at URI. We anticipate heavy usage by people at Brown [University] and the state Department of Health,” Seemann said.
The center will replace the 60,000 square feet of classroom and lab space at CELS. When the new center is completed, URI will demolish that space, which is situated within a 30-year-old biological sciences building deemed too cost-prohibitive to renovate, Seemann said.
Public and Private Funding
Rhode Island voters in 2004 approved a $50-million bond toward the cost of the center. URI plans to raise privately another $10 million, starting with $1 million that Amgen has agreed to donate to the project. Amgen’s donation will help URI construct the center’s advanced labs and endow curricular programs to be named for the company.
“We hope Amgen stepping forward will be part of the key for getting some other major corporate contributions.”
“We hope Amgen stepping forward will be part of the key for getting some other major corporate contributions,” Seemann said. “We provide a lot of the workforce that’s essential throughout the New England area. A lot of great science is done here, and we think we can make a compelling case as to why other big companies and small companies ought to be supporting this endeavor.”
“We are approaching a number of biotechnology firms with the hope that they will be corporate partners with URI and invest in the new center,” Seemann said.
Genzyme and Pfizer are among other biotechs that maintain relationships with the college. But Amgen employs 1,700 people in its West Greenwich plant, which opened in 2002, making Amgen the biggest biotech in Rhode Island.
At URI, Amgen is a key provider of internships and has helped develop educational programs, including a bachelor of science degree program in biotech manufacturing “that has helped both of us develop the workforce the state needs, not only for Amgen but such that we are attractive to industries of this type,” Seemann said.
URI said Amgen’s $1 million will go toward a $100 million war chest it plans to create through its “Making a Difference” capital campaign, set to go public later this year.
Rhode Island, chartered in 1888 as an agricultural school, had 4,700 biotech employees as of last year, according to a report by BioGroup and the Tech Collective. The number of life sciences companies statewide, around 45 including biodevice makers, R&D shops, and biomanufacturing concerns, remains relatively small.
Tech Collective’s Shields of the BioGroup said the state’s advantages to biotechs include growing companies, access to URI students, and cheaper rents for lab space than possible elsewhere in New England’s Interstate 95 corridor — especially the Boston/Cambridge region in Massachusetts and New Haven, Conn.
“If Boston and Cambridge are like 100 percent of New York, which is what we’re thinking, if New Haven is like 95 percent of New York, Rhode Island at best would be approximately 90 percent,” said Stanley Stark, managing partner with HLW International, a New York architectural, engineering and interior design firm that tracks lab costs with another New York firm, Accu-Cost Construction Consultants.
Designed by Boston-based Payette Associates, the center will be divided between research and education space, and include facilities to support genomics, proteomics, and DNA sequencing, as well as a Biosafety Level 3 laboratory.
Construction costs per square foot for URI’s biotech center would range from $370 to $380 for the biology labs to more than $400 for the Biosafety lab, Stark said.
Rhode Island has also taken steps to attract and retain biotech firms. Last year, Gov. Donald Carcieri signed into law the Biotechnology Jobs Growth Act, which extended to 15 from 10 years the duration that biotechs could collect tax credits. Companies seeking the longer credits must make significant property and plant investments; pay median salaries at least 125 percent of the statewide average wage; and show at least 9.5-percent job growth after the fourth year of the credit.
URI’s biotech center has not been without controversy. Last year the state’s House of Representatives’ Committee on Finance held hearings following complaints by Reps. Peter L. Lewiss (D-Westerly) and other lawmakers that the project had overrun its initial cost projection and included more administrative space than voters considered when they approved the $50 million funding.
Lewiss said at the time the hearing was needed to ensure accountability since lawmakers are no longer members of the Board of Governors for Higher Education and other boards that review university capital projects. He did not return two messages seeking comment following the groundbreaking.
Seemann said administrative and other support-services staffers would occupy less than 10 percent of project space, and that its cost met projections.
Seemann said the center will anchor several projects that will comprise a health and sciences “quad,” or cluster of facilities within the North District of URI’s Kingston campus some 30 miles south of Providence.
Future plans call for a pharmacy building to break ground next year — voters last November approved spending $65 million for the building — as well as new buildings for the schools of chemistry and nursing.
Across the street, URI has begun design work through consultant George Henry George Partners for a new research and technology park to occupy around half of 113 undeveloped acres recently acquired by the university.
Over the next six to eight years, Seemann said, the additional health and sciences projects will total $250 million. The university hopes to pay for the projects through additional referenda in 2008, and will likely pursue private funding.
Over the past five years, enrollment in URI’s life science programs has risen 5 percent a year. Total enrollment at CELS is 1,600 undergraduate majors and about 300 masters and PhD-level students.
The college attracts between $10 million and $12 million a year in grants – a number Seemann said is expected to grow once the new center is completed.