Arizona's New Biotech Magnet

The award-winning Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University is attracting scientists at a furious pace. Will Tempe be the U.S.'s next great biotech center?
August 11, 2010

Ask Stephen A. Johnston, PhD, why he moved to the desert, and it's fair to say that the blistering sun and 100-degree heat won't get mentioned.

Johnson, who in 1998 co-founded (and then directed) the Center for Biomedical Inventions at the University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas, is one of more than a dozen world-renowned biotechnology researchers who have flocked to scorching Tempe, Ariz., to join one of the hottest biotech research programs in the nation.

The 175,000-sf Building B is nearly identical to its neighbor, the 172,000-sf Building A, which opened in December 2004. All photos: Mark Boisclair Photography

Located on the campus of Arizona State University, the Biodesign Institute merges formerly distinct fields of research—including biology, chemistry, physics, medicine, agriculture, environmental science, electronics, materials science, engineering, and computing—under the visionary leadership of virologist George Poste, a Fellow of the Royal Society who also holds a doctoral degree in veterinary medicine.

The goal, as Poste puts it, is to accelerate the pace of discovery toward preventing and curing disease, overcoming the pain and limitations of injury, renewing and sustaining the environment, and securing a safer world.

Founded in 2002 by ASU president Michael Crow, the Biodesign Institute operated out of temporary facilities until late 2004, when the first of four master-planned lab buildings was completed. The 172,000-sf, $69 million "Building A" was funded by the university, with operational funding coming from industry grants, philanthropic support, and other external sources.

The second facility, the 175,000-sf, $78 million Building B, opened in January and was financed by the state with funds earmarked for research infrastructure. Details for buildings C and D have not been finalized, but the initial plans call for two, 220,000-sf structures that will cost a combined $200 million. The Biodesign Institute represents the state's largest investment to date in biotech research facilities, according to Poste.

Spread across 13 acres on the eastern end of Arizona State University's campus in Tempe, the Biodesign Institute is attracting some of the country's top scientists.

While the institute's forward-thinking mission and leadership are attracting top talent, it is the state-of-the-art lab facilities that are helping to "seal the deal," says Larry Lord, FAIA, principal with Lord, Aeck & Sargent, Atlanta, which master-planned the campus in conjunction with the Phoenix office of Gould Evans, Kansas City, Mo.

"This is probably the largest open-plan collaborative lab anywhere," says Lord.

Johnson says the new facilities were "a major factor" in inducing him to leave his cushy post in Dallas.

"Innovation requires an environment that facilitates open communication and interaction, as well as the infrastructure to execute experiments to test the ideas," says Johnson, who now heads the Biodesign Institute's Center for Innovations in Medicine. "The Biodesign Institute is exceptional in meeting these requirements."

Others in the industry have taken notice of the Biodesign Institute's progressive design.

Last month, Buildings A and B received the highest honor in the lab design field when the pair were named the 2006 Laboratory of the Year by R&D Magazine. The LOY judging panel, which included industry stalwarts such as Walter "Bud" Guest, SVP at McCarthy Building Cos., St. Louis, Mo., and lab design consultant Richard Rietz, cited the buildings' open, non-departmental laboratories and overall visual transparency. Both traits are intended to foster cross-disciplinary interaction with the goal of sparking new ideas and projects.

Buildings A and B are nearly identical in plan, with office space (green) wrapping the labs and lab support areas (yellow). Pedestrian bridges and staircases in the atrium (light green) link the occupied spaces. Floor plan: Lord, Aeck &Sargent

"This is a giant experiment in science—to see whether open labs, core support labs, and almost overdone visual opportunities are meant to force inter-group research," says Rietz.

A four-story, sky-lit atrium functions as the central circulation spine for both buildings, which are interconnected in a linear fashion. Offices, labs, and conference spaces are situated on either side of the atrium, with grand staircases and pedestrian bridges providing horizontal and vertical links to the various departments. Office spaces were deliberately separated from the labs to force researchers to trek through the atrium every once in awhile, as a way to encourage casual meetings.

Both sides of the atrium are clad with glass to infuse the labs and offices with daylight, and to enhance the transparency throughout the facility.

"It's wide open," says Lord. "People in the labs can see people in the offices and the atrium, people in the offices can see people in the labs and the atrium, and so forth. There's a tremendous amount of positive energy generated by this openness and light, and the excitement of multiple disciplines working together."

The Building Team designed small nooks furnished with whiteboards, tables, and chairs throughout the atrium to provide additional opportunity for researchers to meet and bounce ideas off one another.

Having flexible, modular labs was critical to the mission of the institute, since the size and nature of research teams would fluctuate as new ideas and cross-discipline relationships are realized.

The open labs and lab support areas are 11-foot modules with movable casework. Each module has easy access to the main utility shafts, from which all basic utilities can be extended without excessive labor and cost. The modules have dedicated HVAC controls, allowing researchers to create isolated bio-containment and clean room labs as needed.

"We tried to strike a balance between having no flexibility at all and having utility hookups at every possible location, which you just can't afford to do," says Lord.

The rampant growth of nanotechnology research has placed a whole new set of requirements on lab designers. Building Teams must design and build facilities that are conducive to testing at the nanometer scale (a billionth of a meter, or about one hundred thousandth the width of a human hair), where even the slightest vibration or fluctuation in electrical charge can disturb and even destroy test results.

At Building A, the team took extensive measures to reduce structural vibration and eliminate all electromagnetic interference. Structural engineer Paragon Structural Design, Phoenix, and consultant Colin Gordon and Associates, San Bruno, Calif., devised a "beefed-up" structural system that would reduce vibration to the greatest extent possible, says Lord.

All concrete floor slabs were poured thicker than normal (18 inches on the first floor, 16 inches on the second and third levels); an additional row of columns was added to the first level to stiffen the structure. Mechanical equipment and electrical transformers were mounted on vibration-isolated pads, and HVAC duct and piping was distributed via an interstitial level.

The team hired Springfield, Va.-based Vitatech Engineering to come up with a plan to eliminate electromagnetic interference in the building. The solution involved re-routing all major electrical runs around the sensitive areas. Wood studs were used in parts of the nanotech research areas to eliminate as much metal as possible, and fiberglass reinforcement was specified in lieu of steel rebar for the floor slabs.

Vitatech tried to eliminate all sources of EMI, including a slight direct-current charge created as the building's south elevator cab rides up and down the rails. The solution: Line the elevator shaft with 1/2-inch-thick, low-carbon steel. The result is an EMI level that is as low as any place in the country, says Lord.

So far, the institute has lived up to the lofty goals set forth by Poste and his 14-member research leadership team.

New grants were up 121% last year, far exceeding the institute's initial benchmark of 25% growth. The total number of research centers grew from eight to 12 last year, and patent applications pending increased 268%, from 81 in 2004 to nearly 300 in 2005. The institute had another stellar year on the recruiting front, taking in 24 new faculty members, and the number of researchers overseeing grants increased 59%, from 44 to 70.

Finally, three biotech start-up companies were formed as a result of research conducted and relationships established at the institute, including an entity dedicated to commercializing diagnostic testing for breast cancer that was named the start-up of the year by the BioIndustry Association.

If these are any sign of things come, the Biodesign Institute may very well become the country's next great biotech center.

         
 

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