Origin of a species

Search for humans'genetic map sparks growth in biotech research

November 01, 2000 |

While new materials, construction techniques and architectural styles have evolved over the past several decades, there has not been an entirely new structural species since the advent of the skyscraper. Until now, that is.

Ever since the National Institutes of Health embarked on its Human Genome Project (HGP) in 1990, hundreds of millions of dollars of public, private and grant funds have been dedicated to the development of biotechnology, bioengineering and biomedical research facilities. A preponderance of the new buildings can be found in the Middle Atlantic region.

"Internationally, Interstate 95 has become known as the East Coast life-sciences corridor," says Robert T. Skunda, president and CEO of the Virginia Biotechnology Research Park in Richmond, Va. Anchored by pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and Merck in New Jersey and Whitehall-Robins, a subsidiary of American Home Products in Richmond, the corridor is home to numerous bioresearch facilities. These buildings find their origins in the opportunity for biopharmaceutical exploration-something that is only possible with the information garnered by HGP.

In short, HGP is an effort to construct detailed genetic and physical maps of the human being and to localize tens of thousands of genes within the human genome. The scientific results are expected to offer information about the basic set of inherited "instructions" for our development and functioning. To meet these ambitious goals will demand the development of a variety of new technologies, say experts.

The bioresearch industry has barely reached its infancy, and already major bioscience campuses can be found from Huntsville, Ala., to Menlo Park, Calif., and from Orlando, Fla., to Salt Lake City, with the promise of more yet to come. Along the East Coast life-sciences corridor, major facilities can be found in Philadelphia, Raleigh/Durham and Charlotte, N.C., says Skunda. "We're creating not just bricks and mortar here; we're creating a whole new industry that will change the business of medicine faster than the Internet changed the way we communicate," he explains.

In theory, yes

Despite overwhelming enthusiasm and confidence among practitioners that genetic research will yield nothing less than a whole new approach to the field of medicine, the financial success of biotechnology remains highly theoretical. Many bankers find biotechnology too speculative and unsettling for major financing.

Instead, universities are underwriting such projects, at times with state or local backing. A novel funding partnership has resulted that defines today's biotechnology game.

Universities with strong endowments are investing heavily in the long-term prospects for biotechnology by developing biomedical and bioengineering research parks on or adjacent to their campuses. For the universities, the upside is twofold: They get world-class facilities to attract the top professors and researchers to their campuses, and they stand a good chance of seeing a return on their property investment, too. For the biotechnology industry, it means a seemingly unlimited amount of start-up capital is available that traditional banks are apprehensive to invest in the field.

In Richmond, Va., a partnership has sprouted on 34 acres of urban land, teaming Virginia Commonwealth University, its Medical College of Virginia (MCV), the Commonwealth of Virginia and the city of Richmond itself. Established in 1993 as a stand-alone quasi-governmental agency, the Virginia Biotechnology Research Authority (VBRA) provides downtown research space for both start-up and established biotechnology clients. For its part, MCV is attracting world-renowned scholars and researchers to its academic faculty by virtue of the medical college's short walking distance to world-class facilities.

The city is reaping untold benefits from the revival of the Jackson Ward neighborhood, where the development is located. In less than four years, the authority has opened six buildings encompassing more than 575,000 square feet of research facilities and administrative offices that are leased to capacity. The seventh and eighth buildings are in design development.

What sets the group's approach "outside the box," say observers, is its unique economic development enterprise. Housed in "Biotech I," directly behind the anchor facility Biotech Center-both designed by the local architectural firm of Baskervill & Son and constructed by Kjellstrom & Lee, a Richmond-based general contractor-the agency created a 27,000-sq.-ft. bioscience incubator facility to foster smaller biotechnology start-ups.

"Instead of trying to attract existing businesses to our facility," says Skunda, "we hope to help prepare businesses for business in Virginia. Often a business's roots determine its ultimate locale." The incubator provides wet-laboratory, office, administrative and technical space as well as business-development opportunities to eager biotechnology scientists. While the incubator has helped develop 20 research ventures already, established agencies are also finding the urban setting to their benefit.

Two years ago, the VBRA unveiled "Biotech II," the new home of The Virginia Division of Forensic Science (DFS) and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. The three-story, contemporary and highly geometrical structure of grey cladding and glass comprises 135,000 square feet of unique research space.

The local office of Dewberry & Davis provided the architectural and engineering design, and the former CRSS Constructors, a subsidiary of Pasadena, Calif.-based Jacobs Engineering, completed the $30 million structure in a scant 20 months. Backed with support and charitable contributions from the popular author Patricia Cornwell, the DFS boasts one of the most sophisticated DNA laboratories in the country.

Suburban ambitions

By contrast to the urban renewal in downtown Richmond, The Fontaine Research Park at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville is a sprawling, 54-acre park-like facility set quietly into the rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Already bringing the pastoral research park to within 20 percent of its capacity are such tenants as the Virginia Neurological Institute, Multimedia Medical Systems, the university's Musculoskeletal Medical Building and a joint-venture rehabilitation hospital pairing the university and HealthSouth, the Birmingham, Ala.-based health-care organization.

Funded by the university's endowment organization, the University of Virginia Foundation, the structural centerpiece of Fontaine is the three-story, 60,000-sq.-ft. building for the foundation's offices. Designed by Albany, N.Y.-based Einhorn Yaffee Prescott Architecture & Engineering and constructed by Roanoke, Va.-based J.M. Turner & Co. Inc. at a cost of $5.4 million, the neoclassical design recalls the proportions and details of Thomas Jefferson's Academical Village-the original buildings on the main academic grounds.

While the need for more space for the university and its health-sciences center might have left less room for research at Fontaine Research Park, the university has embarked on an even more ambitious plan focusing on biomedical research. Its North Fork development, a 562-acre, 3-million-sq.-ft. mixed-use masterplan, is zoned for office, light industry, hotel and conference centers, retail and support commercial uses, as well as its core of laboratory, medical and pharmaceutical facilities. Designed by Miami-based "über-planners" Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co., the North Fork development intends to break new ground in mixed-use biotechnological development.

While the urban and suburban answers to the biotechnology industry's needs are quite different, most observers believe that they serve complementary needs. "There is really not much competition between the Virginia technology parks," says Skunda. "Each has its particular strengths and serves a different purpose."

Sky's the limit

Where do biotechnology research parks go from here? The sky's the limit, it seems.

Building designers and construction companies are benefiting from startling growth in these building types, thanks to university competition and the promise of genome research. Yet, like Internet start-ups, biotech companies may show hundreds of millions of dollars worth of value on paper, but until one of them figures out how to harness our genetic information, the bio-companies have no way to profit.

In the meantime, the projects keep coming on line. So it seems like the real winners to date are, in fact, members of U.S. building teams.

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