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This City in Michigan Is a Global Life Sciences Hub

Meet Ann Arbor, home to a world-class research university, renowned medical community, eager entrepreneurs, and a sophisticated support infrastructure that is powering innovation.

By Laura Hill on December 29, 2021

The University of Michigan is one of the region’s life sciences anchors.
Leisa Thompson

From familiar life-saving medications like Lipitor to new treatments that sound like impossible sci-fi dreams, medical and bioscience advancements have put Ann Arbor on the map as a global center of life sciences and medical innovation.

“As difficult as it was when Pfizer closed its headquarters, this region decided to make lemonade out of this lemon,” says Kelly Sexton of the seismic 2008 departure of the pharma giant that shook the community.

The University of Michigan (U-M), where Sexton is associate vice president for research, technology transfer and innovation, stepped in and took over the Pfizer campus and expanded it. U-M launched hundreds of new projects, growing Ann Arbor along the way and giving a boost to independent entrepreneurs, as well.

“When you combine talent, innovation coming out of the university, a growing number of tech accelerators like MI-HQ, all these things are contributing to making Ann Arbor such a great ecosystem,” Sexton says.

“Many advancements are coming through technology transfer here. The one most people would have heard of is FluMist vaccine, the world’s first intranasal vaccine, and then the IntraLase laser for Lasik eye surgery, a collaboration between physicists working on lasers and ophthalmologists at our Kellogg Eye Center.”

Kelly Sexton | University of Michigan

From Lab to Market

Sexton oversees an astonishing number of projects that will eventually grow from its labs to the marketplace. Tech transfer, she explains, is basically the bridge between public funding of research by agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the market.

In a partnership announced in 2020, health care investment firm Deerfield Management Co. and U-M launched Great Lakes Discoveries LLC to commercialize therapeutic projects developed at the university that hold promise in solving unmet medical needs.

Deerfield has committed up to $130 million over the next decade to invest in biomedical research at U-M with the aim of developing potentially lifesaving drugs and treatments.

University of Michigan Health System
Michigan Medicine/University of Michigan

Superb Health Care in Ann Arbor

The region’s superb health care system, Sexton points out, also brings enormous value in terms of biosciences innovation and care. Patients can choose from several excellent options, including the University of Michigan Health System, the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System, Trinity Health and Saint Joseph Mercy Health System, which together employ more than 40,000 and are involved in a number of leading-edge clinical trials.

Excellent Support System

A vibrant support system for entrepreneurial development is also vital to the Ann Arbor region’s biosciences R&D community. In the forefront is MI-HQ, a super-charged biosciences accelerator and collaborative community whose 50+ tenant companies are pursuing some of the world’s most exciting life sciences research.

Meet MI-HQ

Since opening its single-building campus in 2014, MI-HQ (“My HQ”)
has grown to a three-building, 160,000-square-foot campus, where more than
300 people work in labs, classrooms and a variety of meeting spaces that enable them to network, exchange ideas and launch new collaborations.

What’s up at MI-HQ? Well, developing chemical compounds for industry or pharma, energy conversion in plastics and solid waste, processing COVID testing, manufacturing microsensors, making kits for high school labs, repurposing waste grease, engineering a truly disposable diaper, wound care, stem cell cryogenics, creating artificial ligaments, developing night vision goggles. And so much more.

“We’re all about building a community that can help each other – a force multiplier,” says Mark Smith MI-HQ president. “We have a really broad population of tenants here, and that’s what makes this work. We’re not a specific incubator of a specific science.”

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