The world’s attention focused on Southwest Michigan in late 2020 as the region began producing the first COVID-19 vaccines.
Since trucks carrying the vaccine began to roll away from Pfizer Inc.’s massive Portage production complex on that chilly Sunday morning, the Kalamazoo area’s local acumen in life sciences has been the recipient of heightened attention and awareness from the outside world.
“It has led to us getting inquiries from an attraction standpoint in the space, probably more in that contract research space,” Jill Bland, managing partner at regional economic development organization Southwest Michigan First, said during a roundtable conversation MiBiz hosted on the life sciences industry. “This area, and Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids, really has been noted to have quite a few of these contract research organizations, kind of as the fallout of the Upjohn and Park Davis (legacies) and all of those transitions many years ago. But that has led to a lot of inquiries.”
Pfizer has since produced and shipped millions of vaccine doses around the world.
Many of the inquiries Southwest Michigan First has received involved contract research organizations in the region, Bland said. She also noted that Pfizer executives during media interviews have spoken about the high quality of the region’s life sciences workforce.
Pfizer’s vaccine production in Portage, combined with work on the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine by Grand River Aseptic Manufacturing Inc. in Grand Rapids, brought heightened attention to all of the industry across Michigan, said Dr. Stephen Rapundalo, president and CEO of the statewide trade association MichBio.
Pfizer and GRAM together “kind of put the whole industry in Michigan on the map for the better,” Rapundalo said.
“West Michigan — I think in particular, as you look at the whole statewide bioscience industry— was really sort of in the eye of the storm,” he said.
Lab space needed
The question that remains for industry advocates, even more than a year and a half later, is how best to leverage the attention from producing the world’s first COVID-19 vaccine, Rapundalo said during the MiBiz roundtable.
“What I’ve struggled with, in dealing with various stakeholders, is leveraging that visibility and the notoriety to our benefit as groups like Southwest Michigan First and others try to recruit and retain companies and really put our industry as a whole back on the national map where it really belongs,” he said.
Part of that push includes creating more lab space in the state for life sciences companies that want to locate or grow here.
Michigan lacks adequate wet, or experimental, lab space for the industry, Bland said.
“One of the things that we collectively have come to realize (is that) in order for us to grow, we have to identify wet lab space at all levels. And right now there is a lack of that,” she said. “It’s all being utilized, and some that we thought, ‘Oh, this will last us a long time.’ It has not. I mean, it’s full. And so that’s something that, as a community, as a region and as a state, we’ve got to figure out how we’re going to fill that gap.”
That need for more lab space in Michigan is an issue that Rapundalo said he’s been “screaming about” for years, especially as neighboring states invest in infrastructure needed to accommodate their life sciences industry, often with public assistance.
“And I think recently it’s become even more frustrating when we look next door to Illinois and in Chicago, in particular, and see the millions of square feet of new lab space that are being put in the ground by private developers, but with the support of the state with various creative incentive programs,” he said. “So again, it’s all about: What do we need to be doing collectively toward a single vision of really evolving this entire industry, not just med devices, back to a national level? And we just haven’t been. We’ve taken our eye off the ball, I think, over the years.”
Rapundalo did note a greater focus lately on the industry by the Michigan Economic Development Corp. The state this year was well represented at major industry conferences and trade shows, he said.
Life sciences — comprising pharmaceuticals, biotech medical devices or other medical technologies — is a difficult and complicated industry to understand and explain, Rapundalo added. That has resulted in a greater focus on the medical device subsector of life sciences as a part of the state’s manufacturing economy, and less focus on other areas such as pharmaceuticals, he said.
“It was only, I believe, the beginning of this year, when (the MEDC) returned to having a strategic focus in the full spectrum of life sciences,” he said. “I think there’s a much better understanding or a willingness to put more muscle behind life sciences, biosciences, where there was reticence in recent years to engage in various industry events. The MEDC is now putting money behind those.”
“That’s been a positive because, as I reminded them time and time again: How can you ignore the Pfizers and the GRAMs and the others who are producing COVID vaccines for the world? It’s kind of a nutty, myopic view,” he said.