Science-Focused Incubator In St. Paul Cuts Ribbon On $6.4M Expansion

By Frederick Melo
Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) On Thursday, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter joined a broad cross-section of life science-based entrepreneurs to cut the ribbon for a sizable new building addition at University Enterprise Laboratories, one of the state’s most unique business incubators.

St. Paul, Minn.

While completing her doctorate in microbial genomics at the University of Minnesota, Lisa Herron-Olson was drawn to a start-up venture focused on developing vaccines to prevent bacterial infections in people.

Herron-Olson, the second scientist to join Syntiron, soon found she needed more lab room, so she and other U scientists leased work space at the then newly designed University Enterprise Laboratories on St. Paul’s Westgate Drive, just west of Minnesota 280.

That was 14 years ago. “We’ve looked at other facilities,” said Herron-Olson, who is now Syntiron’s chief operating officer. “It’s always been more valuable to stay here. … We’ve done work for other companies in the building. We’ve had other companies clone things for us. There’s nothing better around that had that kind of community.”

And that community is growing. On Thursday, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter joined a broad cross-section of life science-based entrepreneurs to cut the ribbon for a sizable new building addition at UEL, one of the state’s most unique business incubators.

Spanning 19,000 square feet and located near the Minneapolis border, the $6.4 million addition contains 18 new labs, including UEL’s second group lab space for shared innovation. In total, UEL now measures 144,000 square feet and is home to 45 start-up ventures.

The facility is officially independent of the University of Minnesota, though more than a third of those ventures are driven by U faculty. The start-ups tend to draw experts and entrepreneurs in the life sciences, biotech, medical health and medical devices.

The University of Minnesota Genomics Center, which has three other labs in St. Paul and Minneapolis, opened its fourth site at UEL, and two directors started their own microbiome analysis company within the building — CoreBiome — in 2016.

“We have people that have a mailbox and an idea, and we have people that have six laboratories,” said Diane Rucker, UEL’s executive director.
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“We have early-stage companies, growth companies and three anchor tenants.”

Those anchor tenants — Ewald Consulting, Prism Clinical Research and Lions Gift of Sight — have made names for themselves in diverse disciplines. Ewald provides association management and government relations. Prism Clinical recruits volunteers for clinical trials.

And Lions Gift of Sight studies potential cures for blindness while maintaining a database of eye donors for transplants.

“We’re an innovation city,” said Carter, addressing the audience at Thursday’s ribbon-cutting. “A couple years ago, when I first started running for mayor, I would have said that, but I didn’t really know the extent. … Pioneers in eye donation? Yes, you heard me right!”

Speakers at the event included Steve Kelley, the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Commerce, and Hamse Warfa, the new head of economic opportunity for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Not all the news was rosy. An aide to U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar read a letter from the senator noting that the U.S. has hit a low point by some measures when it comes to high-tech innovation and start-ups. About 25 years ago, experts say the country was home to 95 percent of venture capital-based start-up activity around the globe.

While spending has increased, other countries are catching up, and the U.S. is now home to about half the venture capital-based innovation worldwide. The increased competition has inspired a growing number of “start-up incubators” funded by the private sector — testing and training grounds for entrepreneurs in a variety of industries.

Rucker thanked UEL founders Kent Larson, an executive vice president with Xcel Energy, and Robert Elde, former dean of the College of Biological Sciences at the U, for having that vision over a decade ago.

“Without them, this wouldn’t exist,” she said.

The $6.4 million building addition was financed by federal New Market tax credits and loans from St. Paul-based Sunrise Banks and MidWest One. The building was designed by Minneapolis-based Alliiance architects and built by Kraus-Anderson Construction, with project management provided by the Bloomington-based LaSalle Group.

Rucker said there’s more innovation ahead. UEL is the first American site to pilot a start-up developed out of Imperial College in London — “ClusterMarket,” a booking platform that connects scientists to shared and affordable lab equipment and technical services, somewhat in the vein of or for researchers.

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