reWorking Michigan: Moving Products From Concept to Commercialization

May 21, 2012

Earlier this year, Michigan State University created the MSU Innovation Center.  The university has long paired inventors with private sector businesses whom it licenses to turn their ideas into products.  Now, the new center will help create new start-up companies around MSU inventions. 

The program is also designed to improve upon something MSU has done for a long time: help innovators move their ideas out of the lab and onto the market.

Charlie Hasemann is a veteran of the pharmaceutical wars.  Before his current role as executive director of the MSU Innovation Center, Hasemann was a research executive with Pfizer.  He’s seen firsthand a phenomenon well-known to medicine men and women: the gap between breakthrough and break-even.

“I’ve made a discovery; I can get a patent on that discovery,” Hasemann says.  “But from there to actually selling a pill is a $1 billion process.”

That gap is so fraught with hardship that the R & D (research and development) community even has a name for it: the “Valley of Death.”  It’s a span every successful mass production company must cross.  The most widely sold medicines on the planet once started in a laboratory test tube, and each had to prove their worth at higher and higher levels until they reached the store shelf. 

The process of putting a product through increasingly larger efficiency tests is called “scale up.” 

In a small lab at the Michigan Biotechnology Institute in East Lansing, CEO Bobby Bringi studies a bubbling, mocha-colored liquid frothing in a metal container.  It looks a little like a cappuccino machine, if you ignore all the wires and tubes sticking out of it.  

“This doesn’t contain the flavor components, but it does contain living organisms that are taking the sugar and converting that sugar into more valuable molecules,” Bringi explains.

Molecules like fumaric acid.  It’s often used in certain plastics and fabrics.  But it’s also a common food agent with a distinctly sour taste.  Bringi’s lab is making what he calls the “Lego” molecules that can be used in a range of food products.

But proving the value of a liter’s worth of sugary molecular cocktail doesn’t say much about how well the final product will do on the market.  That’s where scale up begins to address the next challenge: can you make your product in huge quantities and still keep it intact?

Beneath a round hatch on the floor of an adjoining room, Bringi peers into a large fermentation chamber.  It’s a steel vault eight feet deep and five feet wide. 

“And that’s a thousand times bigger than the bench top unit that I showed you earlier,” he says.  “This is the scale at which many of the problems or risks that can happen during scale up can be identified and addressed.”

This lab is a miniature version of what the inventors’ manufacturing site might look like.  But it’s big enough to demonstrate how much material and energy a company will eventually need to make its product.  In this room, hopeful entrepreneurs seek their Holy Grail: commercial viability.

Of course, that doesn’t always happen.  Bringi says scale up can reveal major obstacles that could force a company to shut it all down.

“Our motto is, ‘fail cheap, fail fast,’” Bringi says.  “If you can’t address that risk sufficiently, you don’t go on because you’re dead in the water.”

The march toward merchandising isn’t a steady line, even for companies that do make it past scale up.  Boulder, Colorado based OPX Biotechnologies makes a bio-based acrylic acid that may one day replace petroleum acids. Bringi and his team worked with OPX to ferment 3,000 liters of it.

Progress came in fits and starts.  The real world challenge is replicating success outside the safety of the lab.

“You have to do the exact same thing exactly the same way every single day,” says OPX vice-president of business development Michael Rosenberg.  “And it’s one of the hardest transitions to make.  We think we’re on our way there, but we’ve still got a long way to go.”

Michigan State University officials say the alignment of services under its new innovation center will help get more companies off the ground.  And in a field with as high a growth rate as biotechnology, MSU believes a strong infrastructure of people and expertise will keep Michigan attractive to outside investors, and stem the exodus of talented workers that’s plagued the state for years.