Greater Grand Rapids is home to one of the largest manufacturing centers in the country, including leaders in sustainable practices and industrial design. Our IT industry is growing at a rate of nearly 14 percent. Fifteen colleges and universities, including a Big Ten medical school, call Grand Rapids home. Innovation and strong work ethic, unique public-private partnerships, and a collaborative spirit are hallmarks of this community. It’s no wonder that the life sciences industry is thriving here. We take a closer look in this installment of A Grand Investment.

Investment, Infrastructure and Human Capital

With more than 44,000 local jobs tied to biosciences and over $2 billion in recent investments in related infrastructure, West Michigan A Grand Investment logois one of the fastest growing life sciences clusters in the country.

Cutting edge biomedical research, world-class hospitals and healthcare providers, rigorous health professions programs at diverse higher educational institutions and an 83-company-strong medical device manufacturing community all contributed to the nearly 39 percent industry growth West Michigan enjoyed over the past 10 years.

Accessibility and Collaborative Spirit

For an outsider looking to tap into this growth, the most important factor is access – and access comes through collaboration. West Michigan life sciences leaders hold to the old adage that a rising tide lifts all boats. So here, collaboration is an expectation not an exception.

For example, MI-Device is the only Michigan-based consortium dedicated to medical device design, development, manufacturing and distribution. The 26-member consortium, sponsored by the region’s economic development organization, The Right Place, works to speed the growth and development of medical devices by emphasizing and encouraging collaboration among members to meet overall product lifecycle and supply chain needs. The group includes both established companies and start-ups with capabilities in everything from precision machining to plastics to micro-springs.

But even before the medical device industry built a stronghold here, collaboration laid the groundwork for much of the growth in life sciences in this community. The expansion of the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine to Grand Rapids in 2010 is a good example.

In the late ‘90s, the community contemplated how to leverage its current investments to build an even more robust life sciences sector. One gem within the sector was the recently opened Van Andel Institute (VAI), an independent $238 million biomedical research institution dedicated to determining the epigenetic, genetic, molecular and cellular origins of cancer, Parkinson's and other chronic diseases. The institute – somewhat of an anomaly in that it is privately funded and independent of any university, hospital or public research institution – had already attracted distinguished investigators and research teams from the National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health and renowned research institutions around the world. It was also opening doors to research collaborations with area hospitals and universities, as well as with research teams worldwide.

Leaders at VAI and others vested in the life sciences industry came together to create a vision for growth predicated on the knowledge that they had to think big and draw upon the region’s history of collaboration and innovative public-private partnerships.

Amidst these discussions, a 2003 study commissioned by The Right Place identified a medical school – specifically, the potential expansion of the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine to Grand Rapids –  as an important component for Grand Rapids to become a life sciences center. The study pointed to expanded research and clinical trials, intellectual property, physician recruitment and jobs as the critical components that a medical school would bring to the community.

In 2004, Grand Action, a nonprofit downtown development organization, convened a formal stakeholder group to explore the feasibility and value – to the community and to MSU – of bringing the MSU medical school to Grand Rapids. The stakeholder group included Spectrum Health, Saint Mary’s Health Care (now Mercy Health Saint Mary’s), MSU, Grand Valley State University, The Right Place and VAI.

Van Andel Institute in the Medical Mile neighborhood of Grand Rapids, Michigan
The Van Andel Institute in the Media Mile neighborhood. Photo credit: Experience Grand Rapids

After several years of study and community engagement, the group developed a plan, raised the funds and, in September 2010, collectively celebrated as the MSU College of Human Medicine opened the doors to its new $90 million home in the Secchia Center in downtown Grand Rapids.  

In addition to educating more than 300 first- and second-year medical students each year, the College of Human Medicine in Grand Rapids employs approximately 20 principal investigators who work in leased lab space at VAI and Grand Valley State University’s Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences focusing on women’s health, Parkinson’s and other chronic disease. These teams collaborate with MSU research faculty and colleagues around the globe.

A Growing Biosciences Cluster

With access to expanded local and international research collaborations, MSU has developed new research strengths in neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, women’s health problems including ovarian cancer and endometriosis and childhood developmental problems such as autism.

The university is expanding research facilities in Grand Rapids to accommodate new research strengths, with the MSU Grand Rapids Research Center due to open in late 2017. This $88 million, 167,000 square-foot biomedical research facility is designed as collaborative space and will anchor the west end of Grand Rapids’ Medical Mile. This one-square-mile section of downtown stretches east up Michigan Street encompassing the Secchia Center, VAI, Spectrum Health’s main campus – including a dedicated pediatric hospital, heart center and cancer center – GVSU Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences, the Calkins Science Center at Grand Rapids Community College,  Grand Rapids Women’s Health Center and Metro Health-OAM Surgical Center, along with numerous provider offices.  

By 2025, when the MSU Grand Rapids Research Center is running at full capacity, it will support 260 employees including 44 principal investigators and their research teams.

The center will serve as an economic engine, underscored by the fact that MSU is a member of the Big Ten Academic Alliance, a model for effective collaboration among research universities. With more than $10 billion in funded research, it is one of the best-funded research alliances in the world. The Grand Rapids Research Center will help MSU College of Human Medicine and its Grand Rapids partners tap into this alliance on a deeper level, expand medical research, and serve as a stimulus for growth in biotechnology and life sciences business attraction.

Nearby, on the east end of the Medical Mile, Grand Valley State University broke ground in November 2016 on Raleigh J. Finkelstein Hall, a $37.5 million health campus expansion that will add 84,000 square feet of classroom space, teaching laboratories, computer labs and faculty office space for GVSU’s health professions programs. The facility is expected to open in May of 2018 and will be located just north of the Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences, home to the GVSU Kirkhof College of Nursing.

World-Class Care

Complementing advances in biomedical research and health science education, Grand Rapids’ healthcare institutions are providing patient care that is second to none.

Spectrum Health is one of the nation’s Top 15 health systems, employing 21,000 people at 12 hospitals, 180 ambulatory sites and multiple offices spanning 13 counties throughout West Michigan. Its main downtown Grand Rapids campus is home to the Helen DeVos Children’s HospitalLemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion and Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center, as well as a Level I trauma center. 

Just a mile south of Spectrum’s downtown campus, Mercy Health Saint Mary’s operates a 344-bed acute care hospital, as well as the Lacks Cancer Center; Wege Institute for Mind, Body and Spirit; and Mercy Health Hauenstein Neurosciences Center.  

Exterior of Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan
One of the many patient-care facilities in the Medial Mile is the Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center. Photo credit: Experience Grand Rapids

The $60 million Hauenstein Neurosciences Center is the only comprehensive neurological center of its kind in the country and offers patients access to fellowship-trained physicians specializing in epilepsy, spine and brain disorders, Parkinson’s disease, sleep disorders, stroke, dementia and overall nervous system care. Researchers at the Mercy Health Phase One Clinical Trials Unit partner with teams at VAI and MSU to open access to cutting-edge neuroscience clinical trials and state-of-the-art treatment that may otherwise be unavailable.

Next door, Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital – a 125-year-old, 167-bed hospital providing acute care inpatient physical and cognitive rehabilitation and post-acute services – recently completed a $66.4 million expansion and renovation more than doubling the number of inpatient beds and enhancing treatment capabilities.

Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Network extends the hospital’s specialized services to nine other hospital systems throughout Michigan.

And finally, Metro Health and the University of Michigan announced an affiliation in December 2016 that will expand U-M medical services in West Michigan. The Metro Health University of Michigan Health affiliation will enhance Metro’s research capabilities, primary care and specialty services and access to complex medical technologies for its patients.

Located at the 170-acre Metro Health Village, just south of Grand Rapids in suburban Wyoming, Metro Health-University of Michigan Health is a community healthcare system serving 250,000 patients each year through Metro Health Hospital – a 208-bed general acute-care osteopathic teaching hospital – neighborhood outpatients centers and offices throughout West Michigan.

Investing in Innovation and Access

The people behind Grand Rapids’ burgeoning life sciences industry would be the first to say, they don’t know exactly where the industry will grow from here, but they know there is no end in sight. Strong investment continues.

Exterior of the Spectrum Health in Medical Mile neighborhood of Grand Rapids
Spectrum Health is investing in new technologies to improve patient health and reduce costs.

Spectrum Health, for instance, recently announced a new venture capital fund that will invest $100 million in health-related companies over the next seven to 10 years. Specifically, Spectrum Health Ventures will invest up to $2 million per deal in established health-related companies in the areas of:

  • Genomics and personalized medicine
  • Artificial intelligence and cognitive computing for disease prevention
  • Behavioral health and well-being
  • Digital innovations for consumers, and
  • Population and health analytics

The aim is to support innovations in new technologies, products and services that improve patient health and drive down costs.

And while these investments mean Grand Rapids is growing its healthcare, biomedical research, health science education and medical device manufacturing assets and capabilities, they also ensure greater access – for entrepreneurs, investors, talent, students and patients – to all that a robust life sciences industry has to offer.

A Grand Investment is an ongoing series exploring the business landscape of Grand Rapids. Michigan’s fastest growing metro area and one of the nation’s strongest economies, Grand Rapids is fueled by a creative, collaborative spirit that generates global, national and entrepreneurial investment. This series highlights leading sectors of the local economy and underscores the city’s suitability for innovation-focused meetings.