December 14, 2009

Research Authority, MUSC, City Collaborate On $6.1M Innovation Center

Allyson Bird  /  Post and Courier

A long-gone mattress factory wedged between an off-ramp and an on-ramp on Meeting Street returns to life this week as a place where scientists will study new ways to kill cancer and create alternative fuel.

The Innovation Center, a collaborative project of the S.C. Research Authority, Medical University of South Carolina and city of Charleston, preserves the building's historical look while transforming the space into 11 high-tech labs. Each comes work-ready with about $50,000 in equipment, including emergency showers, gas and air lines, and ventilation systems that keep potentially contaminated air from escaping into the hallways.

Walking into one of the labs, SCRA's executive vice president and general manager John Gregg marveled: "It's easy to rent space, but it's difficult to get this. You walk in, and it's done."

A common room provides scientists with a water sterilizer, sterilizing dishwasher and sterile ice maker. They also get access to two high-powered ovens and a freezer that looks more like a safe and cools to 80 degrees below zero.

Seven of the labs have tissue culture rooms inside, and utilities are included with the rent, which Gregg said ranges from $2,300 to $4,400 per month. The SCRA also provides an office manager to keep everything running smoothly.

The first four tenants can move in Tuesday, and the $6.1 million facility, fully financed by SCRA, celebrates its grand opening Friday.

School ties

The story behind this first-of-its-kind place for the Lowcountry – "the galactic background," as SCRA Chief Executive Bill Mahoney calls it – starts with Harvard business expert Michael Porter, who analyzed the South Carolina economy at the state's request earlier this decade, after some 75,000 manufacturing jobs disappeared. In addition to growing business clusters, Porter recommended building a local cluster of knowledge-based companies.

A series of state legislation followed, ending with the 2005 Innovation Centers Act, which mandated the SCRA to launch three facilities across the state, including the one on upper Meeting Street with the medical university.

Next summer, the SCRA and the University of South Carolina will reopen an old liquor warehouse as a site for developing high-tech light manufacturing near downtown Columbia's Innovista. Then in the fall, SCRA and Clemson University will open a facility in the school's research park that will focus on developing advanced materials, such as atom-size technology and the practical application of light.

The SCRA's investment in the three projects totals about $15 million over two years. Mahoney said the authority, as a nonstock, tax-exempt corporation, "is targeting this strictly as break-even."

SCRA checked out 20 similar operations around the country and applied the success stories when it came time to choose its own sites. Mahoney said the Charleston mattress factory's biggest draw is its location just a mile or two from MUSC's campus. If researchers had to spend 20 miles driving on the interstate before arriving at their labs, they likely would spend less time there, he said.

"If you're trying to provide commercial resources to a scientific community, one of the most important factors is physical proximity to that community," Mahoney said.

The SCRA preserved as much of the factory as possible, down to its wave-patterned windows, buying the special glass from a company in Upstate New York that still makes it. The authority also restored pulley-operated ceiling windows and two giant fans that each weigh a ton in a common room inside the facility.

Walking through the space, Gregg said those elements lend some historical perspective.

"You can imagine people in here working years ago, and that was the only method of ventilation," he said.

Market potential

The large common space also underlines the Innovation Center's greater purpose: taking scientific discoveries from research to market. The SCRA plans to divide the room into cubicles and to fill some of the work space with bankers, attorneys and other experts who could help push the products.

Thanks to National Science Foundation funding, the College of Charleston's business school soon will lend its expertise as well. By design, researchers should stay at the center for two or three years before they, ideally, outgrow it.

Their presence, in the meantime, should inject new energy into that part of town. An existing police substation will move into the Innovation Center, thereby bumping up security while at the same time giving residents a reason to stop by.

The SCRA leased the land from the city, which acquired the property from the state Department of Transportation during the Ravenel Bridge project. Mayor Joe Riley said city officials see the nearly adjacent trolley barn as a potential spot for the American College of the Building Arts and predicts the Innovation Center will mark the start of something bigger for that area of the city.

"It will attract other commercial activity," he said.

Dr. Steve Lanier, associate provost for research at the Medical University, said the Innovation Center should draw a mixture of academic and private-sector scientists over time.

"We've always focused on generating new knowledge. We are all about research and discovery," he said. "It's become clear that now we need to translate that knowledge to benefit society."

Lanier sees the potential to do that in the Innovation Center.

"I remember the first time I walked in that mattress factory," he said. "I thought, 'This is it.' "

Who's in so far?

Four tenants already have committed to move into the Innovation Center, which has 11 lab-equipped spaces:

Vortex Biotechnology Corp. studies cancer-fighting agents.

Microbial Fuel Cell Technologies focuses on alternative energy, specifically on applying a microbial and bioelectrical chemical approach to biofuels.

Neurological Testing Service Inc. tests neurological drugs for pharmaceutical companies.

Immunologix Inc. works to generate therapeutic antibodies that target bacteria, viruses and tumors.

Note: Each company is affiliated with the Medical University of South Carolina.