Syracuse University last week completed construction of its $107 million Life Sciences Complex, which the school hopes will promote more interdisciplinary biology and chemistry research, and consolidate its growing science programs, in particular biology, where the number of undergraduate majors has jumped 30 percent over the past two to three years.
The school also expects the new facility to help it recruit “10 or so faculty over the next five years” in areas such as stem-cell research, renewable energy, and genetics, according to John Russell, chair of SU’s Department of Biology.
The Life Sciences Complex, actually a single, 230,000-square-foot building, is the largest construction project in SU history. The six-story facility, designed by Ellenzweig Associates of Cambridge, Mass., features a pair of wings in an “L”-shaped configuration: A research wing that houses biology research laboratories, conference rooms, and faculty offices; and a teaching wing that includes lecture halls, research greenhouses, and biochemistry, biology, and chemistry teaching labs.
Russell told BioRegion News last week the new building places under one roof the university’s biology, biochemistry, and chemistry programs.
“It will be Syracuse University’s anchor for life sciences, that’s for sure. And it is a tremendous sign that the university is supportive of life sciences,” Russell said. “It is, I think, a pretty good sign that Syracuse University is ready for the long haul to be a player in life sciences.”
However, a more commonly used metric — access to government funding — tells another story: During fiscal 2007, SU won around $6.1 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health. By comparison Columbia University was awarded $340.2 million, Cornell University and its Weill Medical College won $177.2 million, and the State University of New York system brought in nearly $133.5 million.
Syracuse’s FY 2007 number was down from nearly $6.3 million in grants awarded during the previous fiscal year, and not much above the $6.04 million in grants received in FY 2002.
SU’s new facility, he said, was needed to accommodate enrollment increases in biology and chemistry the school expects in coming years, which officials said will exceed the steady growth of the past eight years, which includes a 30-percent rise in total undergrad enrollment over the past two to three years. “We expect that to continue at least for a while,” Russell said in an interview.
SU has about 330 undergraduate biology majors among the roughly 1,500 students who take biology classes each semester; students are not required to declare a major until the end of their sophomore year. The university also has 35 PhD candidates and teaches some 700 to 800 credit-hours worth of graduate student courses each semester.
“There are two parts to the equation of improving an educational program: that’s having good facilities and good people. And having good facilities has helped us — just the promise of having good facilities has helped us in both biology and chemistry to recruit very strong new faculty to our respective departments. And that, in turn, is drawing graduate students and undergraduate students,” Russell told BRN.
Asked to explain the 30-percent enrollment jump, Russell said that “many young people are aware that life sciences are going to be the physics and chemistry of the 21st century. It’s where the exciting things in science are happening. In the lay press, you see a lot of stories on … stem-cell research, cancer medicines — all of it life sciences. I think that’s driving it to a large extent.”
But because this is the first year that students will have studied in the new building, Russell added that “it might be a year or two before we could honestly say that the building has done something to enrollment. So if we see an increase in this trend in the number of biology students, then we might be able to attribute it to the building.”
The complex “really provides for us an opportunity to recruit new faculty to build up projects in the areas of biomedicine and biotechnology.”
Russell spoke Nov. 6, the first in a two-day series of free and open-to-the-public events by SU to mark the dedication of the life-sci complex. Events included an address by Craig Venter and a ribbon-cutting ceremony
George Langford, dean of SU’s College of Arts and Sciences, said SU anticipates it “will probably be recruiting 10 or so faculty over the next five years” as a result of the new complex.
They will focus, Langford said, in SU’s traditional areas of cell and molecular biology, as well as “in areas such as biomedicine, stem-cell research, and in bioenergy; we want to find individuals who are working on genetics and plants that may improve the ability to convert biomass, cellulose, into ethanol or other renewable energy sources.” Those people, he added, will likely work with faculty and others in SU’s biomaterials program.
“This really provides for us an opportunity to recruit new faculty to build up projects in the areas of biomedicine and biotechnology,” two of four growing bio programs at SU, Langford said; the others are biomaterials and bioenergy.
“We hope there will be spinouts, but what we hope to see is getting through that early stage of development, where there are good ideas but it’s hard to attract venture capital or other kinds of funding because the idea hasn’t developed far enough,” Langford said. “You’ve got to have ways to support scientists when someone says, ‘This is a neat idea,’ but the potential hasn’t been shown so it’s hard to get investors to come forward with money.”
As important as the new faculty and new space are, Langford said, the new facility will also contribute something less tangible: wedding SU’s bio and chem programs.
“We were moving toward a program — both [in] our teaching and research — in which we had collaborative projects between biologists and the chemists, but we couldn’t actualize that in the space that we had,” said Langford. “It was critically important to have a space to accommodate the project-based, inquiry-based laboratory training that would bring biology and chemistry together into a single space.”
The Life Sciences Complex replaces separate biology and chemistry buildings that totaled 95,000 square feet. Biology had been taught in two buildings, one opened in 1905, the other 1964, while the Chemistry Department held classes in a building that opened in 1906.
“All three are great buildings in their own way, but not very good for modern research and teaching of science,” Russell said.
The older buildings will be renovated for new uses, with a biomaterials group set to occupy the chemistry building.
The new facility has been designed to allow construction of an expansion wing, though that is not likely to happen for at least a decade, Russell said.
Paying for It
SU is funding the Life Sciences Complex through $90 million in bonds and donations from various sources. Donations have included $6 million from husband-and-wife alumni Jack and Laura Milton, both members of SU’s Class of 1951, for the atrium that connects the Life Sciences Complex to the Center for Science and Technology.
That center houses the university’s chemistry research labs and the SU Center for Advanced Systems and Engineering, or CASE, which includes incubator space for biotech and other startups.
The complex also benefited from a $5 million state grant secured by Assemblyman William Magnarelli (D-Syracuse) through the Assembly’s Rebuilding the Empire State Through Opportunities in Regional Economies program, also known as RESTORE.
RESTORE aims to encourage collaborations between academic institutions and local biotech and pharma companies. Using funding from the program, Russell said, “We expect to offer tutorials, short classes, in the use of various modern equipment, and to make available to small firms our expertise, even to having them have a little lab space if they needed to push forward some product, and needed some technical advice by scientists.”
Funding from RESTORE was also used for the new facility’s RESTORE Center for Environmental Biotechnology, designed to advance research into how organisms interact with their environments, promote collaborations between researchers and professionals from Central New York biotech and biopharma industries, and develop graduates with the skills needed to fill positions with the region’s life-sci employers.
Biotech is one of several industry clusters that are expected to grow in New York state, according to two reports released by the Metropolitan Development Association of Syracuse and Central New York: its original Vision 2010 economic development strategy report, released in 1996, and The Essential New York Initiative, an updated report developed in consultation with the Battelle Memorial Institute and Catalytix, and published in 2004.
“Central Upstate New York has a strong foundation of several important industrial and occupational concentrations upon which to build,” the 2004 report stated. “These include environmental technology, biosciences, digital and electronic devices, precision metal working, packaging, and the knowledge/learning industry which includes educational institutions, research firms and consulting practices.”
Syracuse’s new complex is expected to step up the university’s collaboration activity with life-sci companies. “We expect this new building will increase the opportunities for those to occur. It’s new, up-to-date space that will attract strong scientists with which these entrepreneurs and biotech companies will be interested in working,” Russell said. “This will serve as a basic science source for local biotechnology entrepreneurs in Central New York.”
At present, the university’s collaboration partners include Welch Allyn, which in September joined with SU to open on campus the 4,000-square-foot “Blue Highway” incubator, which is focused on accelerating commercialization of biomedical devices. The incubator is named for a 40-year Welch Allyn employee, Richard W. Newman.
Welch Allyn is one of the largest employers in Syracuse’s county of Onondaga, with 1,100 employees at a plant in Skaneateles Falls, according to data from the Greater Syracuse Economic Growth Council compiled earlier this year.
Another major regional life-sci employer, Bristol-Myers Squibb, maintains a drug-manufacturing plant in East Syracuse that employs 820, according to the growth council. BMS generates more than $2.6 million in taxes annually with a local payroll exceeding $50 million, the company states on its web site.
Like BMS and Welch Allyn, SU is an anchor of the biocluster that has emerged in and around Syracuse. That region, Central New York, is 3,590 square miles in size and is bordered by Binghamton to the south, Rochester to the east, Watertown to the north, and Utica to the West. Syracuse sits in the center of that region.
The university is also a partner in the Central New York Biotechnology Research Center, formed to help commercialize technologies developed at the university and other centers, including the State University of New York’s Upstate Medical University and College of Environmental Science and Forestry.
SU is also a member of MedTech, a not-for-profit regional trade association that promotes commercialization of medical technologies in Central New York. Heather Erickson, president of MedTech, told BRN SU’s Life Sciences Complex is likely to advance biotech and pharma research beyond Central New York, into the rest of upstate New York, where some 80 percent of that region’s roughly 300 life-sci companies focus on medical device development. Welch Allyn and BMS are among founding members of MedTech, as is surgical equipment maker ConMed.
According to Erickson: “Syracuse University recognizes the strength of some of their technical programs, and is really looking to be making investments across the campus in a variety of those disciplines to shore up the programs they have existing, and to take advantage of some of development and research opportunities, as well as demand for experienced and well-trained professionals.”
Langford said the new complex would help by enhancing biopharma in and around Syracuse. “What we’d like to do is make sure Central New York is competitive with other parts of the country where there is a real growth in the biotech industry in general, but the pharmaceutical industry in particular,” he said.