Bringing science to life

Sunday, October 26, 2003

It's making food more nutritional and abundant. It's searching for cures to life-threatening diseases. It's finding new ways to protect and improve the environment.

It's also a rapidly growing industry, creating new businesses and high-paying jobs at a time when they're sorely needed. It's those things and more, a world of scientists, academicians and economic developers working together to improve the human condition.

It's the new world of life sciences, and it's coming to Southeast Missouri.

Life science programs already exist in places across the globe, and the entity that plans to bring the phenomenon here is Southeast Missouri State University, which has hired Dennis Roedemeier to make it happen.

Roedemeier, a former business recruiter and employee of the Missouri Department of Economic Development, has the task of developing a business incubator on the Cape Girardeau campus and overseeing the creation of a technology park on 410 acres of farmland along Interstate 55 north of Cape Girardeau.

The business incubator will help startup businesses -- some in the life sciences field -- which can then move to the technology park, which will be on the east side of the interstate off County Road 618, and eventually will be the home of thousands of new jobs.

"It's the newest frontier for business, certainly in the area of research," said Roedemeier, whose salary is $125,000 per year. "The '80s presented us opportunities. The '90s were telecommunications and information technology. Now we're presented with the world of life sciences."

The promise of such research -- and economic development -- has the business community abuzz about the possibilities.

"I'm excited about it," said Mitch Robinson, head of the Cape Girardeau Area Industrial Recruitment Association. "Universities across the country play a role in economic development. It's something that can have a very positive impact on the community."

Robinson says the potential lies in taking some of the new technologies developed through life sciences and turning them into jobs for this area.

"Once it has some success, this thing's going to snowball," Robinson said. "I know it's hard to say right up front what it's going to be. It's going to take some time. You can't expect a miracle overnight, but it's going to be very beneficial in the long run."

Hard to explain

The life sciences are difficult to explain to those outside the scientific community, because they are so inclusive. In St. Louis, they're in the form of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, which is plant research to improve food nutrition and availability. In Kansas City, they're at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, which works with genetics to discover the origins of disease, which unlocks secrets to treatment.

"It's certainly broad," said Roedemeier, whose title is executive director of the Innovation Center and CEO of the University Research Foundation. "Saying life sciences is like saying engineering. It's like saying chemistry. What you have to do is measure where you want to be within the life sciences."

So what will Southeast Missouri's role be in the life sciences program?

"Dunno," Roedemeier said. "We don't know. It will probably take another 30 to 60 days. It's moving very fast. But we're working on what role we're going to play."

Roedemeier, on the job just three months, is working on a business model and meeting with potential business start-ups about the business incubator. He said he is not ready to release specifics about those businesses, though that should happen soon.

Not that Roedemeier is without vision. Some things simply make sense for this area. He notes that the area has abundant farmland, for example. One of the first things he talks about is cultivating a strong relationship with the Danforth Center.

"Look at the work they're doing with plants," Roedemeier said. "Where do you go to plant 10 acres in Chesterfield? I don't think it's going to be Ladue."

Roedemeier suggests taking those plants that have been genetically modified to have more nutrition, more durability and more versatility and planting them in Southeast Missouri.

"We may, and I put a line under that may, establish ourselves in that position with the Danforth Center," he said. "That may be where you see us go."

Those at the Danforth Center are receptive to the idea.

"If we were going to do field testing work, we were going to need someplace to do that," said Dr. Karel Schubert, vice president of technology management at the Danforth Center. "Obviously, we don't have space here, and we're going to need full collaborators to do that. Southeast Missouri State with their farm would be a great location to do it."

Schubert, who already has met with Southeast leaders, said none of their projects are far enough along to do that yet, but said that opportunity would no doubt present itself in a few years.

There are other possibilities, including doing agricultural work similar to what is done at the Danforth Center. It may also involve some medical research, like the Kansas City facility, though on a smaller level. It also may involve environmental research.

"We know you can put certain plants in the ground to take bad chemicals out," Roedemeier said. "It goes after the bad actors and draws them into the root system and consumes them."

The doors are wide open. Roedemeier said that is the case because there are so many talented people at the university and within the community.

"If you look, you start to see strengths that this area has," he said. "What we're doing is connecting the dots of strengths. We have so many of them here. We're on a waterway. We have an abundance of soil. We have so many opportunities."

Bioterrorism research

Roedemeier also reticently mentioned bioterrorism, which can take the form of something he called "agriterrorism." He said Southeast Missouri would be the ideal place to research ways to react to such a threat.

"The issue of bioterrorism is not to destroy, it's to create havoc," he said. "If you're going to create havoc in the U.S., it's going to be with your food. If I was going to ask the question about how to deal with it, I'd ask it here. Because this is where the food is grown. That's probably one of the larger issues on the table."

The business incubator is expected to open next spring at the First Baptist Church's former education center on Broadway. The university recently purchased the property.

Roedemeier says the business incubator will offer "the best chance the community has" for aspiring business people to start their own businesses. While 80 to 90 percent of new businesses fail, 80 percent succeed after starting in a business incubator.

"In an incubator climate, you are around other people who are trying to do what you're doing," he said. "If you are in one of those offices, you can find somebody who has been through what you're going through to help you. It's an invaluable gift. They don't have to do so much themselves."

Not all the businesses in the incubator will be related to life sciences, Roedemeier said. There will be some businesses that will be food related, as well as some that are dedicated to developing medical devices as well as creating new medical procedures and methods.

He also said he wouldn't be surprised if some new business there is involved in international trade.

"I know that really sounds weird, but here you are in the agricultural center," he said. "You have the best rice in the world, everybody knows that. But who's our international broker? I bet some young people will step forward to do that."

Whatever is in the incubator, it will reflect the interest of the community. The same goes for the technology park, which will be developed after a $6 million interchange is finished at 1-55 and a new East Main Street interchange in Jackson in 2006. That will provide access to the technology park, which is currently the university farm.

That will house life sciences projects and other businesses that want to lease property there. He expects businesses there to be involved in agriculture, manufacturing companies, some greenhouses and other business investment.

"I'm going to be interested to see how the folks who are alumni, those who are now in strong corporate positions, react to that opportunity," Roedemeier said. "I don't know what form it's going to take. But I'm like everybody else, I'm anxious to see what we come up with."

Keeping dollars here

Buz Sutherland, director of the Small Business Development Center, said his office will be moved from the new incubator and eventually to the research park. Sutherland also has thought about what the park would look like.

"I think there will be a large science component, a greenhouse, a research component, genetic engineering, things like that," Sutherland said. "I also see us doing some of the processing here instead of shipping our substantial grains and fiber up and down the river."

By doing that, Sutherland said, jobs are created and a lot of dollars are kept in this area.

"We are the premier producer of food and fiber in Southeast Missouri," he said. "Let's not ship what we're so good at producing out to other places. If it's going to be made into corn flakes, let's make it into corn flakes ourselves."

Sutherland also said he would like to see farmers benefit substantially from the university's plans. They could form something called new generation cooperatives, which are farmer-owned. That's when farmers not only make the crops, they manufacture them into the product.

In the Dakotas, for example, wheat farmers came together and started a pasta plant. They raised the wheat and then made it into pasta.

"A bunch of them got together, so no one had a particularly bone-crushing investment," Sutherland said. "All they have is a little piece of ownership and ended up with a processing plant. That added more value to the community they raised. That's good old Yankee capitalism."

Roedemeier only has a very general timeline for when all this could happen, but it goes something like this: Businesses will start going into the technology park in 2007. He sees it as "a major hit" by 2012, full of researchers and life-sciences based businesses, as well as others.

"By 2010, wow," he said. "We'll be saying, 'Who could have imagined?'"

But the technology park won't be similar to the industrial parks of the 1980s. Roedemeier wants something tasteful for the rural setting.

He noted that there's enough space for a business for approximately every five acres, which would mean 80 businesses.

"But don't say there's going to be that many," he cautioned. "Like I keep saying, it's what the community wants. We may get to 20 and they say, 'Stop, that's enough.'"

Roedemeier realizes that the description of what the technology park will look like is vague.

"You'll be able to tell your kids what happened," he said. "The community is going to see this project unfold right before their very eyes."

335-6611, extension 137

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