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Life Sciences Sector Makes Ann Arbor A Lab Leader

Ann Arbor's powerhouse research capabilities stimulate life sciences breakthroughs

By Teree Caruthers on April 13, 2018

Ann Arbor, MI
Ann Arbor / Marcin Szczepanski

Ann Arbor is at the nexus of life science and health care innovation, driven by a diverse roster of breakthrough companies and powered by research resources that have attained a global reputation.

It is a region that enjoys a long legacy of life sciences innovation – the heart-lung machine used in the first heart transplant was developed and manufactured in Ann Arbor. It is this legacy that motivates today’s visionaries toward future advances.

More than 200 companies are in the region’s life sciences sector, which includes pharmaceutical, medical device, diagnostic and bioinformatics organizations.

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The region’s culture of research innovation has created a number of breakthrough companies, such as Terumo Cardiovascular Group, an Ann Arbor-based firm that develops and manufactures medical devices for cardiac and vascular surgery

A cornerstone of the region’s life sciences success is the presence of the University of Michigan. The university ranks first in research among U.S. public universities, with nearly $1.5 billion in research expenditures in fiscal year 2017 alone. About half of that research is related to the life sciences and biomedical research.

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A key component of U-M’s research efforts is the Life Sciences Institute (LSI), a collaborative institution that houses research teams working on finding solutions to some of the world’s most dire health problems.

“Our amazing research enterprise – bolstered by programs like President Mark Schlissel’s biosciences initiative, which will invest $150 million over five years to strengthen research and education in biosciences across the university – allows U-M to attract some of the top talent in the world, both among faculty and trainees,†says Ian Demsky, director of communications for the University of Michigan Life Sciences Institute.

Research Leader

The university’s medical school and medical center, collectively known as Michigan Medicine, also play a critical role in launching life sciences startups. Founders of AlertWatch Inc., a company that develops real-time patient monitoring dashboards to help hospitals improve clinical quality, provider workflow and billing accuracy, worked with the Michigan Medicine’s chair anesthesia from the hospital during the firm’s earliest stages.

“He actually got in touch with me through the University of Michigan Office of Tech Transfer,†says Justin Adams, AlertWatch CEO. “Tech Transfer was able to do pairing or bring together business people with scientists, and that was a key resource to get us off the ground.” Standout health care systems including University of Michigan Health System, Trinity Health, St. Joseph Mercy Health and the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System buoy the life sciences industry and are among the region’s largest employers.

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A high concentration of venture capital firms also contributes to the growth of the life sciences sector. According to a 2017 report by the Michigan Venture Capital Association, 18 venture firms and 49 venture backed companies, are operating in the region. Ann Arbor SPARK, the region’s leading economic development agency, also helps entrepreneurs find funding.

“Ann Arbor attracts 55 percent of the venture capital in Michigan and the area has significant opportunities for growth due to its renowned research institutions and access to talent,†says Maureen Miller Brosnan, executive director of the Michigan Venture Capital Association.

The region has found success turning adversity into opportunity, says Stephen Rapundalo, president and CEO of MichBio, a member- driven organization that supports and promotes the biosciences industry in Michigan. In 2007, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer stunned the region by announcing it was closing its Ann Arbor research facilities. When Pfizer closed, many workers decided to start new companies, science consultancies and contract research organizations in the region, Rapundalo says

The Right Address

The Ann Arbor region offers a number of facilities to help fledgling life sciences firms. 

MI-HQ is a private-sector tech incubator that offers shared office space and well-equipped wet and dry lab space.

The co-working space brings together professionals from life sciences, drug discovery, medical device, alternative energy, cutting- edge technologies, consulting firms and business development services. 

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The region’s enviable quality of life also helps keep the life sciences industry on a growth trajectory.

“Compared to the coasts, it’s far less expensive to live here, and certainly the cost of doing business is less than the coastal areas,†Rapundalo says. “The region has worked hard to ensure that there’s a vibrancy here, and we’ve seen that develop in the life sciences. Even after entrepreneurs have exited their first startup, they don’t take off somewhere; they stick around and do it all over again.â€

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