Plymouth life science startup incubator celebrates 15 years of successes

The Michigan Life Science and Innovation Center started as an idea written down on a paper plate, but it's now one of the largest resource hubs for high-tech startups in the surrounding area.
Plymouth-based startup incubator Michigan Life Science and Innovation Center (MLSIC) started as an idea written down on a paper plate, but it's now one of the largest resource hubs for high-tech startups in the surrounding area. This month, MLSIC is celebrating 15 years of fostering inventive socioeconomic growth in Michigan.

Currently, MLSIC is home to 22 tenants, but around 50 successful companies have already graduated out of the hub to their own spaces or been purchased by larger companies. Hundreds of jobs have been created through MLSIC. And several MLSIC alumni have made major advances in health care, including new drugs to lower cholesterol, a new breast cancer screening method, and new COVID-19 tests. 

"Your success is our success," says MLSIC Managing Director Fred Earl. He emphasizes that unlike other similar incubators, MLSIC doesn’t take a percentage of companies’ profits and doesn’t have a time limit on how long companies can stay in the building for help. 

"I don't know that there's another place that is even close to [MLSIC]," Esperion Therapeutics Founder and MLSIC co-founder Roger Newton adds. 
MLSIC co-founder Roger Newton in 2011.
Over the past decade and a half, the building has continued to provide entrepreneurs with lab space, affordable leasing options, high-tech conference rooms, and networking and mentoring opportunities with fellow innovators. Earl says the incubator has become a family-like community for everyone involved. 

However, MLSIC's story began with a major challenge: Pfizer closing all three of its Michigan research facilities, leading to nearly 12,500 local tech employees being displaced, many of them with no desire to leave the Ann Arbor area. Newton, Earl, and the late Mike Finney, then CEO of Ann Arbor SPARK, sketched out the idea for MLSIC on the back of a paper plate, according to Earl. The trio saw an incubator as an opportunity to collaborate with local entrepreneurs and help them grow their unique ideas. 

In partnership with Finney, Newton worked with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) and Greater Wayne Economic Development Corporation to purchase Pfizer’s Plymouth building, along with all of the equipment in it. Considering the fact that Pfizer spent $11.5 million to upgrade the space a few years prior, Newton obtaining it for just $4.5 million in May 2008 was a great deal. 

Out of that building, MLSIC was born, as were many successful Michigan biotech companies. One notable MLSIC alum is Celsee, Inc., a life science tool startup that designed a unique microfluidic platform to capture rare circulating tumor cells from blood as an alternative to painful and invasive biopsies. Priya Gogoi and other co-founders, all of whom were interns at Esperion Therapeutics, came to MLSIC with their idea and just $500 a month to spend. 

"I said, 'Well, I got this quarter bench here you can use, and nobody's using this office next door, so you can camp out in there until somebody else wants it,'" Earl says. 

Shortly after that, Celsee's co-founders wanted to enter a competition that had a $1,200 entrance fee, which Celsee couldn’t afford at the time. Earl suggested they volunteer to help at the event instead to find out how the competition ran and gain knowledge before participating themselves. 

"They did that and they found out what their idea was," Earl says. "We came back and worked on it. They entered that same competition the next year and won the competition. And it was a half-a-million-dollar award." 

From there, Celsee really began to take off, bringing on biotech innovator Kalyan Handique, founder of the highly successful Michigan startup HandyLab, to help. Handique transitioned from advising Celsee co-founders to coming on board as a CEO at Celsee. He also continues to mentor other small tech startups at MLSIC. 

"You can start from scratch at anything as long as you have the right team, right outlook, and as long as you're solving the right problems," Handique says. 

It seems that Celsee had all of that, with co-founders even using their own blood for testing during the early stages. 

"People say that they give their sweat and blood for a company, and we can proudly say that we actually, not just metaphorically, we actually gave our actual blood to develop this," Gogoi says. 
Celsee co-founder Priya Gogoi.
In 2015, Celsee was named one of the Top 10 Innovations in the nation by The Scientist magazine. In 2020, Earl says the company was sold to BioRad for over $180 million. It now has headquarters in Ann Arbor. 

Gogoi is extremely grateful to MLSIC and is passionate about uplifting the incubator as a "treasure of the community." Now, she hopes to spread her love of MLSIC.

"There are a lot of success stories in Celsee and we want to inspire others too," Gogoi says. "It takes time and energy to align everybody towards a common cause and we need happy occasions for sure like that. So we want to bring in people to spread the important message that we have a good thing going on here. It can be continued. What we have done here, we can pitch to the rest of the ecosystem." 
Priya Gogoi speaks at Michigan Life Science and Innovation Center's 15th anniversary celebration.
In addition to Celsee, many other companies have had success stories with MLSIC's help.

One of them is RetroSense Therapeutics, a company that developed a gene therapy to restore vision in patients with blindness. The company created technologies that were bought by Allegren in 2016. Another notable MLSIC alum is Lycera, which focuses on developing medicines for autoimmune disorders and cancers.

On June 6, MLSIC hosted an anniversary celebration showcasing all of its graduates and current companies. Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist was the keynote speaker for the event. 
Michigan Life Science and Innovation Center's 15th anniversary celebration.
"Life science technologies and innovations are extremely important for the world, not just Michigan," Handique says.

With MEDC leadership changing over the years, Earl says MLSIC's focus sometimes shifts as well, as some state leaders want to emphasize support for the automotive industry. However, Earl hopes that MLSIC can get back to its initial goal of fostering growth and innovation in biotech and health care. As retirement nears, both he and Newton have strong hopes that their legacy will continue on into the future. 

"It's really a time to gather, to celebrate, and to look forward to the future, ... saying how important this is and how we want it to continue for a long time to come," Earl says.

Layla McMurtrie is a recent Eastern Michigan University graduate and former editor-in-chief of The Eastern Echo. She has a passion for arts and culture and hopes to tell the stories of underrepresented Michigan residents.

15th anniversary celebration photos courtesy of MLSIC. All other photos by Doug Coombe.
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