Long envisioned as the middle anchor in an ambitious road map toward a thriving life sciences economic development zone, University Innovation Park is embarking on a planned expansion phase that is designed to attract a new set of life sciences companies to East Tennessee. And years of effort are paying off with a burgeoning group of fledgling companies that already call the park home.
Development plans for University Innovation Park date back to the early 1990s, when Johnson City, Johnson City Medical Center and East Tennessee State University blueprinted plans for a med-tech corridor that would be home to a complex of medically related businesses.
North of the park is a 100-acre development centered on medical support and some software and computer facilities that is about 90 percent developed. And to the south, a 40-acre parcel of land was designated for a continuing education center, a conference center and a hotel, which is done.
Plans for University Innovation Park, though, were slowed by the two military tenants on the land: a reserve training center for the Marine Corps and the National Guard Armory. The closing of the Marine's facility was treated as a base closing by the federal government and the Armory property reverted to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs. Johnson City and the university won a grant to obtain the Marine property, and elected officials eventually steered control of the Armory property to the state.
"Now we have our hands on all 60 acres," says Michael Woodruff, PhD, chairman of the board for University Innovation Park and also vice provost for research at ETSU.
In 2002, says Woodruff, the park set out in earnest to begin attracting companies involved in developing early-stage pharma, medical devices, software and related products. The same year, the first stage of a new business incubator was opened at the renovated Marine facility. Yasoo Health moved in, concentrating its growth around selling antioxidant compounds as food supplements while working to develop nutraceuticals for its long-term growth. Yasoo has been helped along by a Small Business Innovation Research Grant and a million-dollar grant from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
A second company, Orison Corporation, moved into the incubator from San Diego and has since grown into new facilities in Johnson City. Orison is developing "ultrasound and computer imaging to do breast scans that can replace mammography and has attracted up to $3.5 million in investments, much from local sources," explains Woodruff.
Other companies arrived to work on new software packages and two other firms — ProteoGenesis and Bioinventions — have moved in to make their bid for the big time. Proteogenesis was started by two graduates of the university's PhD program. Their fledgling organization is gearing up to distribute specialty proteins for research use in drug development and has already found $800,000 in angel funds.
To make way for further growth, the park is adding 11,000 square feet of space to the 15,000 square feet inherited from the Marines. That extra space should be opening up around February of 2007. And Woodruff already has his eye focused on growth companies operating in several high-cost regions.
"We feel that we have the facilities and the adjunct help in university research and the business support and local angel investor network and some venture capital locally so that we can provide the kind of support other areas can provide — but we can do it a lot more cheaply," says Woodruff.
The park has operated wet lab space at $20 a square foot, explains Woodruff, a bargain compared to the prices paid in places like northern Virginia or San Diego or central Florida.
Without any prodding from economic development officials, Crown Labs moved from San Diego to the Johnson City area. And Woodruff believes there are more companies that fit the same profile.
"The CEOs of those companies were looking for a different kind of life," says Woodruff. "You can live in a nice place and be close to work, with no state income tax, and the cost of doing business is far less."
The one missing piece to Woodruff's puzzle is the $500,000 to $1 million he'll need to build out the infrastructure — roads and sewers — needed to support development efforts.
"We've had inquiries about development of the park," adds Woodruff. "If those improvements are in, I think we would probably have a building by 2008 in the park. Not just incubating, but including smaller biotech or high-tech companies."