University of Utah dedicates new biotech facility

Published: Wednesday, April 18 2012 5:13 p.m. MDT

Jason Beck, a graduate student, works on organic synthesis in the Nano Institute lab of the James L. Sorenson Molecular Biotechnology Building in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, April 18, 2012.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The University of Utah has been recognized for its research and business innovation; now a new high-tech facility could help further that reputation and bring with it financial rewards as well.

Leaders from the Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative will dedicate the James L. Sorenson Molecular Biotechnology Building today — a $130 million, 208,000-square-foot research facility where scientists, physicians and engineers will collaborate to create new advances in the biotech field.

"The technology that is developed here is going to be a multidisciplinary … cross-pollination of ideas," said Dinesh Patel, chairman of the USTAR Governing Authority. Located midway between the engineering and medical areas of campus, the new research building will facilitate increased interaction among faculty and student researchers, Patel said.

Eventually, the plan is to have two to three additional buildings complement and expand the university's biotech center, he added.

Financial support for the facility came from $100 million in state bonding and the balance from private donations, including $15 million from the Sorenson Legacy Foundation and $1.25 million from Micron Technology. Construction of the project began in April 2009 and was completed in December 2011. Tenants started moving in last month.

Researchers at the new facility will have the ability to perform “dry” nano (fabrication) for silicon chips, etc., as well as “wet” nano — for use in biomedical devices. The facility also boasts precision equipment, including a $3 million confocal microscope for florescent imaging of cellular processes.

Nanofabrication is the design and manufacture of devices with dimensions measured in nanometers. One nanometer is a millionth of a millimeter — less than the diameter of a human hair. The process is of interest to computer engineers because it could open the door to super-high-density microprocessors and memory chips that could one day store a data bit in a single atom.

Since its inception in 2007, USTAR has helped produce more than 300 invention disclosures and patent filings, along with 44 startup companies or industry partnerships, according to a program statement.

USTAR collaborates with the University of Utah and Utah State University to create world-class research teams in strategic innovation development areas. Highly regarded faculty members, supported by teams of top researchers, lead the teams.

The infrastructure and multidisciplinary nature of the building here and at the counterpart facility at Utah State University allow our research universities to go after bigger research grants, Patel said.

"To successfully win big federal and industry grants takes more complex, collaborative teams of researchers," he said. "The physical and intellectual infrastructure this building represents has already helped the U. of U. win a $20 million advanced materials grant."

The new facility houses the Brain Institute, Nano Institute of Utah, and Department of Bioengineering, according to USTAR spokeman Michael O'Malley.

Thus far, the USTAR program has recruited 32 principle researchers to Utah from such prestigious institutions as Harvard, MIT and UCLA. As of Dec. 2011, the researchers have generated nearly $80 million in grants since 2007, with more than $81 million in research proposals pending, Patel said.

In that time, University of Utah USTAR researchers have generated more than 140 invention disclosures and patent filings, O'Malley said.

"This represents a reservoir of intellectual property and future breakthroughs in health care, engineering, energy and more," he said.

To date, U. researchers have launched or relocated 10 companies, and 10 more commercialization projects are underway. Among the projects currently under investigation is the development of reliable testing to detect pancreatic cancer.

Nano Institute director Marc Porter said his group is working to create the next generation of diagnostic tests using nano technology.

"The kinds of things that we do and people we're talking to are companies that can build kits for these different kinds of diagnostic tests … (creating) the basis for forming new companies or licensing technology," he said.

Eventually, the growth of the new Utah-based companies will result in payment of royalties to USTAR and the university, Patel said, which will help sustain the USTAR program for years to come.

E-mail: jlee@desnews.com Twitter: JasenLee1

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