When James Woolliscroft heard the news in January 2007 that Pfizer was closing its drug research campus on Plymouth Rd., he thought, Wow, what an opportunity.

This was far from the majority sentiment in Ann Arbor. The city faced losing not only a huge chunk of its tax base, but also the 3,100 Pfizer employees and contractors who bought groceries and houses, paid property taxes, and otherwise contributed to the local economy.

But Woolliscroft, who was about to have the “interim” removed from his title as dean of the U-M Medical School, was thrilled by the sudden availability of 174 acres adjacent to North Campus, with twenty-eight buildings containing two million square feet of office and lab space.

Woolliscroft’s medical researchers were running out of room. But all that acreage appealed to Woolliscroft as more than a mere workplace. He envisioned a space in which a serendipitous coming together of researchers would add up to a massive creative incubator.

When the idea first came up, “the medical school was essentially completely out of wet lab space,” Woolliscroft says, “and we had just gotten through building the Biomedical Science Research Building. We were looking at demolishing the old Kresge compound and putting up a building there, at a cost in the $350-$400 million range, a huge amount for us to fund.”

The Pfizer site was more than “shovel ready.” With a relatively modest amount of retrofitting, it would be “occupant ready.” It was also a huge bargain.

The U-M completed its acquisition of the property for $108 million in June 2009. The deal included a fifty-five-acre parcel that the university itself had sold to the pharmaceutical giant eight years earlier for $27 million. Deduct that, and the Pfizer research labs–twice the size of Briarwood Mall–went for just $81 million. That’s less than a quarter of what it would have cost to replace Kresge, and an even smaller fraction of the billion-plus dollars that a member of the brokerage team that marketed the site estimated it would take to replicate it.

“It’s fair to say the economic climate worked in favor of the university” in 2009, says David Canter, who ran the lab for Pfizer and returned to manage it in its reincarnation as the U-M North Campus Research Complex. It “was a good year to invest if you had cash. It was a very bad year if you needed to find someone to lend you money.”

Not only was the immediate lab space problem solved, but “it gave us an incredible opportunity to do things entirely differently in regards to research,” says Woolliscroft. “All of a sudden, space wouldn’t be the limiting factor. The whole concept we put forward was to have faculty from different schools and colleges, along with government and private industry, working side by side in a way that had been impossible heretofore.”

The Biomedical Science Research Building experience proved useful–and encouraging. “We brought in medical school faculty from different departments, assigned space programmatically, and it was already a great success,” says Woolliscroft. The question at NCRC then became, “How could we put it on steroids and have people from across campus with similar programmatic research interests come together?” Adding government and private industry to the mix completed the consolidation of the entire “bench to bedside” paradigm in one location–except, so far, for clinical trials.

The NCRC is now home to the U-M Tech Transfer Venture Center (and the twenty-two high-tech start-ups sited there); outposts of ten U-M schools; nine scientific research core services; eight lab-based research groups; one institute; and, as tenants, four private companies (Lycera Corp., Honda Motor Co., Bosch USA, and BoroPharm Inc.); as well as the Ann Arbor VA’s Center for Clinical Management Research. There’s no partridge or pear tree yet, but there is a white marble sculpture of an egg just outside Building 18 (see Back Page, p. 115).

Since April 2010, when the first pioneers arrived to rattle around its echoing corridors, the NCRC’s population has grown to more than 2,400. As of January, about 70 percent of the former Pfizer space had been repurposed by the U-M; of that, 97 percent is occupied or committed.

“In terms of research labs, I don’t think today we have more than 2,000 square feet left,” says Colin Duckett, a professor of pathology and internal medicine who serves as the center’s director of program development. “I know of a project that’s going to take four buildings that are currently not activated that’s waiting for approval by the regents. That’s hundreds of people that will be coming over. My guess is we’ll be over 3,500 people five years from now, and the existing buildings we have will be full.”

In the process, Duckett, a cancer researcher, had to master some new skills. “I was probably pretty naive on day one,” he says. “I’ve had to learn a huge amount since then about a lot of different areas of science to do this job effectively. You also have to become a bit of an armchair psychologist to work out what personalities are likely to work well with colleagues here. In science as in life, there are some very strong personalities, so reading the tea leaves and seeing where the synergies may lie is part of the challenge.”

That challenge began at the beginning.

“When the university bought this site, it did something that a university doesn’t normally do,” says Canter. “It normally knows pretty much who is going into a building before it builds it. The acquisition of this site was a bold step in the dark. It was done in the genuine belief that the university would need this type of space, either by growth or by shifting people from other facilities that were becoming outdated and needed to close. But they didn’t specifically know who was going to come.”

They did know, however, that interdisciplinary team research was “the call of the day,” says Kevin Ward, professor of emergency medicine and director of the Michigan Center for Integrative Research in Critical Care.

Ward’s center, one of the NCRC’s newer inhabitants, grew from an earlier initiative he launched at Virginia Commonwealth University. “At most places, you’re crunched for space,” he says. “Now the NCRC is almost full. We got there at the right time.”

“There was this discussion prior to my arrival about should we create this institute or that institute and so pre-define from on high what’s going to be here and develop the programs to fit the concept,” says Canter. “That didn’t happen. What really happened was there was a call for proposals. Twenty came forward, and administrators picked five or six.”

The choices were informed by “a willingness to allow an eclectic mix of researchers to come together without necessarily over-defining some overriding purpose,” Canter says, “in the belief that when you mix faculty and researchers from many different disciplines, interesting things happen, and you have to let that evolve without trying to over control it. I think that’s happening.”

As surgery professor and researcher Jacqueline Jeruss puts it, “When you can put key people together that otherwise wouldn’t have the chance to meet, you’re going to come up with novel ideas that would otherwise never happen with silos and individual labs.”

Jeruss works with one of the first enterprises to take space at the NCRC, the Translational Oncology Program, whose aim is to “translate” laboratory discoveries into clinical advancements that will help doctors diagnose and treat cancer. “You get all the components of the machine in one place, rather than asking them to stretch across miles of campus and then interlock,” she says. “That is the essence of what the NCRC is allowing for, on top of the fact that the facility is so state of the art. You’re allowing people to play together in a way that they never had a chance to do before.”

Jeruss and her husband, Lonnie Shea, the new chair of the department of biomedical engineering, personify one of the halo effects of the NCRC. They came to U-M last fall from Northwestern, lured in part by the opportunity to build expanded research labs at the NCRC.

“Finding that right space was the most essential thing for us in deciding where to go,” says Jeruss. “We could see a home for ourselves that surpassed anything we had previously. We’re very proud of what we were able to accomplish at Northwestern, but this is a chance for us to take our work to a new level.”

The original expectation was that the medical school would be the primary user, since it provided the bulk of the funding. But then the harsh reality of shrinking research funding set in, along with an increased focus on interdisciplinary teams by the National Institutes of Health, a major source of research money. Not only did the pie shrink, but the rules for distributing the slices changed.

“Obviously, the research grant landscape became much more difficult,” Canter says, “and we have not seen the growth in faculty hiring that we projected. However, there’s still been a demand for programs to be created here. Several of the most successful ones here came from ideas that people had that could not be executed without some facility option available.”

Perhaps the most stunning example, at least numerically, is the Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation. Together with the VA’s clinical management program, it occupies almost all of Pfizer’s six-story administration building. The two programs combined account for nearly a quarter of the NCRC’s labor force.

“Back in 2009, the university had many office-based researchers studying health systems, analyzing very large data sets, exploring questions about the use of health resources,” says Canter. “I think the university was unaware of how strong it was; it’s a national leader in health system research, but everybody was scattered.”

That strength became apparent when faculty members from across the university answered the call for proposals. Ultimately, all came together in the new institute.

“I think the people there came from seventeen different locations on campus,” says Woolliscroft, “and even though they were internationally renowned and knew of each other’s work, many of them hadn’t even met each other. Now they’re there along with junior faculty, trainees, and support people, and it has just exploded to the point where we’re remodeling more space for them.” Their latest project: a five-year contract with the Michigan Department of Community Health to evaluate the effectiveness of Michigan’s Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.

Bringing together medical researchers and people who study the health system’s performance wasn’t part of the original plan, but it wasn’t much of a stretch. Neither was another faculty initiative, the Biointerfaces Institute, comprising about two dozen engineers, dentists, pharmacists, medicinal chemists, and medical scientists who research topics that cross disciplinary lines, like nanotechnology and cell engineering.

But nowhere on the radar was anything like what Canter calls the “artificial town” that the U-M Transportation Research Institute is constructing. Occupying thirty-two of the fifty-five acres the university sold and repurchased, the Mobility Transformation Facility Center will begin operations this spring and formally open in July. Its approximately three lane-miles of roads with intersections, traffic signs and signals, sidewalks, benches, simulated buildings, streetlights, and obstacles such as construction barriers will provide a controlled environment to safely test automated and connected vehicles.

It’s the latest example of how Woolliscroft’s initial vision of scientists of various disciplines rubbing shoulders is paying off in all kinds of unexpected ways.

“It’s a bit apocryphal but true,” says Woolliscroft, “that one of the beauties of Ann Arbor is that faculty talk over the back fence or at their kids’ soccer game and realize, boy, you’ve got something that could help me solve this really difficult conundrum I’ve been wrestling with. We thought we could intentionally enhance serendipity. That’s what the whole theme was. Now there’s this mix that you hadn’t ever found here at Michigan before.”

Growing Spin-offs

Befitting NCRC’s birth during the Great Recession, another of the complex’s goals has been, as the 2013 annual report puts it, to “help lead the resurgence in Michigan’s economy.” Some of that effect is apparent on Plymouth Rd., where more than fifteen new businesses have opened since NCRC’s launch.

On the research campus itself, projects with future commercial potential are funded under the Michigan Translational Research and Commercialization Program which offers smaller, proof-of-concept Kickstart Awards as well as more substantial grants for projects in later stages. The idea is to get laboratory discoveries to a point where they can attract private-sector money or spin off into independent companies. MTRAC backed four projects at the Center for Integrative Research in Critical Care, which is heavily involved in medical device development (see main story). One of those projects recently received $150,000 in development funding from health-care giant Baxter, and another has attracted considerable corporate interest.

Radiology and radiology-oncology researchers Ted Lawrence, Judy Leopold, Mukesh Nyati, and Chris Whitehead have developed a number of novel compounds to address targets known to be involved in lung and colorectal cancer. Related therapies have garnered significant interest from big pharma and some are being pursued by a newly formed start-up called Pi-Squared.

Mark Cohen, from the surgery department, and pharmacist Anna Schwendeman, of the BioInterfaces Group, have developed a novel means of targeting powerful chemotherapy agents specifically to the adrenal glands, eliminating many adverse side effects. They received MTRAC funding and are working toward a potential start-up company.

They’re also an example of James Woolliscroft’s “back fence” theory at work (see main story). Schwendeman recently told a pharmacy publication that researchers from their labs and pharmacist James Moon’s “often discuss data and exchange samples without us knowing. This informal exchange and problem solving is really critical to our success.”

Calls & letters, May 2015:

Pfizer’s human cost

To the Observer:

We were a Pfizer family, and it stung a little to read the joyous message of good fortune described in the article about the U of M takeover of the old Pfizer site (“From Crisis to Opportunity,” April). It is good that something productive came from something painful. And I know the story was not about what happened to the employees, families and contractors who were fired, relocated, and in some cases devastated by the sudden closure and aftermath. Yet it was hard to embrace the happiness and enthusiasm of the U of M representatives quoted in the article, and not think of the pain many people went through. It just would’ve been nice to balance, temper, the joy with a little consideration for readers like our family who were brought to our knees by the whole event, and found a way to get back up again. It took a long time, and we did not profit.


Suzanne Bayer