University lab bustles with activity and plans to expand

The lab would be built next to the current bioscience incubator building.

Although its doors opened just a year ago, the University Enterprise Laboratories building is already looking to expand.

Known as a bioscience incubator building, the 126,000 square-foot facility is almost 70 percent full and might be close to 85 percent by January, said Randy Olson, the building manager.

Olson said planning for another building is still preliminary, but it’s important to start early because it took three years to complete the existing laboratories. He said he expects a similar timetable for future development.

A bioscience incubator is a research facility, generally funded by a large public research university, that provides leased laboratory and office space to start-up companies looking to develop technology involving biology, medicine or ecology, but who could not afford to build their own infrastructure.

The enterprise labs project is a joint venture between the University, the city of St. Paul and a number of private business investors. It’s a separate legal entity from the University.

The University and Xcel Energy contributed the most money to the $21 million complex – about $2 million each, Olson said. Investors funded about $9 million.

“For years, there was a sense within the University and the city of St. Paul that there wasn’t any one place where small companies could be located,” Olson said. “Looking at other research universities, many have had a history of funding bioscience incubators. So the University may have actually been in catch-up mode.”

A new building might be anywhere from 80,000 to 120,000 square feet and would probably be built on an open field next to the existing one, located on an 11-acre lot along the transitway just inside St. Paul city limits.

Robert Elde, dean of the College of Biological Sciences and chairman of the laboratories’ board of directors, said the push for the University to sponsor a bioscience incubator started several years ago when a professor almost left to pursue research at Stanford University that he felt he couldn’t do in Minnesota.

This was partly because there was no space for the researcher to house a start-up company, so the University agreed to temporarily locate several burgeoning businesses in Snyder Hall while getting serious about funding an incubator, Elde said.

“I took the lead in getting that whole thing going,” he said.

One of the companies that took up residence in Snyder Hall before moving to the enterprise labs building is Gel-Del Technologies.

Philip Messina, chief operating officer of Gel-Del, said company officials talked with Elde for years about the concept for the facility.

“When they found the building, we actually became the first tenant,” Messina said.

David Masters, Gel-Del president and a former University professor, said he didn’t have any place to establish his business when he founded the company in 1999.

“Operations occurred out of my house for a while,” he said.

Masters said Gel-Del makes biomaterials from protein and carbohydrates that act like chemicals naturally found in the human body.

Messina said one of its featured products is an artificial blood-vessel graft, which is in clinical trials right now and was proven to be effective when implanted in ticks.

The technology could provide help for people who need to have blood vessels replaced, like when they have heart bypass surgery, Masters said.

Currently, doctors take a blood vessel from another part of a patient’s body when directing blood flow around a blocked artery, he said, but with Gel-Del’s technology, that blocked artery could be replaced completely by one made of biomaterial.