“I saw this [the Biology Process Technology Institute] as another way of creating a bridge between IT and CBS. I thought we ought to promote the connection institutionally. Thus the idea of providing an academic home in Chemical Engineering for people primarily at the BPTI. I think we also wanted something that would be closer to the application end and that would interact with local business.”
– KENNETH H. KELLER, UNIVERSITY PRESIDENT, 1985-88
The idea of a biotechnology initiative at the University was first proposed by Biochemistry Department head Professor Victor Bloomfield and CBS Dean Richard Caldecott in the early 1980s. After much preliminary discussion within a core group of planners and with corporate supporters from Control Data, Land O’Lakes, Domain, Pillsbury, Diagnostic, and Honeywell, the concept was presented to the Minnesota State Legislature where it won approval as a special appropriation beginning in 1983.
An annual appropriation of $300,000 was initially used to remodel space for Institute offices and for a central fermentation facility in Gortner Lab. BPTI was thus chartered by the state as an initiative to help catalyze the development of a biotechnology industry in Minnesota. A joint venture of the College of Biological Sciences and the Institute of Technology, the Biotechnology Management board was set up and a high tech council of community business leaders established to oversee initial development of the BPTI. In the search for a director, priority was given to selecting a relatively young to mid-career but well-established biotechnologist, someone who would have a vigorous individual research program and was well-known and connected in the biotech community. Michael Flickinger of the National Cancer Institute fit the bill. Flickinger was selected as first director of the BPTI in 1984.
Professor Arnie Fredrickson was one of the founding faculty of BPTI. In his early collaborative work with Professor H.M. Tsuchiya, who was a microbiologist, he experienced the benefits of interdisciplinary research between engineers and biologists. This was the cornerstone of BPTI – to conduct research at the interface of engineering and biology. Prof. Fredrickson’s early work in mathematical modeling of cell populations was seminal for much of today’s work in cell population dynamics.
As director in the start-up years, Michael Flickinger had to develop curriculum, hire faculty, raise funds to purchase equipment and lobby the state legislature every two years for a budget. He also initiated the National Institute of Health (NIH) Biotechnology Training Grant which has supported over 100 PhD. students since 1990.
The master’s program in Microbial Engineering was conceived at this time by Professors Arnie Fredrickson, Marty Dworkin and Palmer Rogers.
BPTI labs were located on the second and third floors of Snyder Hall, eventually displacing the teaching laboratories of the Chemistry Department. The central laboratories of the BPTI were developed in the basement of Gortner Laboratory in a space that included two undeveloped areas known as the “sand rooms”. The offices of BPTI were located in the area that had at one time been occupied by the biochemistry library before its move to the fourth floor of the Biological Sciences Center.
Considerable effort and resources were dedicated to convert the sub-standard space in the basement of Gortner Lab, and develop what eventually became known as the Biotechnology Resource Center (BRC), the cornerstone of Biodale in the College of Biological Sciences. Construction began in 1985, and equipment was gathered and donated in anticipation of this completed central research facility. By 1986, it had become a state-of-the-art laboratory for testing and scaling up new technologies for bioprocessing.
DCI, Inc., of St. Cloud was one of the first major contributors, donating a 300L fermenter to the BPTI pilot plant. Over the years, there have been significant contributions from companies such as ABEC, Inc., Fisher Rosemount, Hosakawa-Bepex and others.
Founding Director was Perfect Fit for Start-up BPTI
Professor Michael C. Flickinger was hired in 1985 from the National Cancer Institute to become the founding director of the BPTI. Prior to coming to Minnesota he was Director of the Fermentation Program at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Frederick, Maryland. At NCI he directed drug discovery, process development, scale-up, and cGMP manufacturing groups supplying experimental anti-tumor drugs and biologics for pre-clinical and clinical trials.
Known for his cross-disciplinary research, his teaching, and as a consultant to industry in the areas of fermentation process development, manufacturing, containment, and facilities design, Flickinger was well-suited to the role of director.
Flickinger was established within the biotechnology community. As the 1993 recipient of the David Perlman Memorial Lecturer award, Flickinger was recognized for his “long-standing accomplishments in the field of biochemical technology” which included contributions in the areas of fermentation technology, hybridoma cell growth and metabolism, and microbial biochemistry. He later received the 1995 American Chemical Society’s Van Lanen Distinguished Service Award.
Originally hired by Michael Flickinger as a secretary in 1987, Kristi Iskierka assumed administrative roles in helping manage the growing Institute and was eventually promoted to Senior Administrative Director.
In 1987, Lori Buboltz was also hired by Flickinger in 1987 to do accounting work for the Institute.
Prof. Friedrich Srienc, with a PhD in Biotechnology from the Technical University of Gras, Austria, became the first BPTI faculty in 1985 when he was hired as a joint appointment with Chemical Engineering and Materials Science .
In 1986, Robert Brooker was hired as a joint appointment with Genetics and Cell Biology. Brooker did graduate work at Harvard and received his doctorate from Yale University.
After renovation of its lab space in Gortner was completed and with the publication of its first research annual report in 1988, the BPTI was ready to expand its influence and visibility. In 1989, it hosted the first Midwest Biotechnology Symposium, a joint effort with the University of Wisconsin and the University of Iowa was the first of many other symposia that the Institute was to host.
New Faculty Hires
Also in 1989, BPTI hired Professor Gary M. Dunny as a joint appointment in Microbiology and Dr. Jeffrey Tate as industrial liaison.
In 1990, Professor David Sherman, who did his doctoral work in organic chemistry atColumbia University, was also hired as a joint appointment in Microbiology.
The National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) training grant in biotechnology originated in 1990 and has since been renewed at the level of 16 students per year. Over a hundred students have been drawn from the departments of Biochemistry, Microbiology, Chemistry, Agronomy and Plant Genetics, Plant Biology, Veterinary Pathobiology, Medicinal Chemistry, Food Science and Nutrition, Chemical Engineering, and Computer Science.
MicE: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Biotechnology
The BioTechnology Institute is built around the concept of a multi-disciplinary approach to biotechnology. Cross training students in the biological sciences and engineering is the foundation on which the Microbial Engineering (MicE) Master of Science program was built. This graduate program accepts students with undergraduate degrees in the biological sciences or engineering and trains them in the complementary field.
The MicE degree is viewed by the biotechnology industry as an engineering degree. And while 36 percent of students graduating from the MicE program have continued on to PhD programs, 64 percent have found industrial employment with companies such as Cargill, 3M, Merck, Pfizer, Dow, General Mills, Exxon and others. MicE graduates have excellent career opportunities at competitive engineering salaries.
In 1991, BPTI catalyzed the formation of MNBIO, the Minnesota Biotechnology Association. MNBIO (which has since taken the name LifeScience Alley) has promoted the steady growth of Minnesota’s life sciences industry through partnerships of industry, financial resources, academia and government. It also provides educational resources, heightens public awareness of the industry, and represents industy members on matters of public policy.
1992: A Year of Changes
In 1992, Professor Lawrence P. Wackett came to the BPTI from the Gray Freshwater Biological Institute as a joint appointment in biochemistry. The Freshwater Institute was a research facility on Lake Minnetonka built for the University through funds raised by business investor Dick Gray and the Freshwater Society. Wackett had met and worked with BPTI Director Michael Flickinger who brought him to the BPTI.
Soon after Wackett’s appointment, Flickinger decided to step down and devote more time to his own research.
University alumnus Ken Valentas, PhD, Chemical Engineering, was former Sr. Vice President of Engineering with the Pillsbury Co. and been teaching a chemical engineering class for several years on food processing principles and operations. He was recommended to Professor Friedrich Srienc as an interim director by Professor Doraiswami Ramakrishna (a former classmate of Valentas who was then teaching at Purdue University), and Srienc suggested Valentas to CBS dean Pete McGee. McGee was impressed by Valentas’ strong industry and academic connections and appointed him interim Director of the BPTI.
One of the first things that Ken Valentas did was make seed grants available to faculty to help them get projects off the ground. A research university lives on grants to support its graduate students and post-doctoral associates. Competition for grants is keen, and the funds available to the granting agencies have not kept pace with the expanding research base in biotechnology (more people competing for fewer resources). To provide faculty members with a competitive edge, the BPTI began making seed grants available in 1993.
Seed grants were intended to fund one year of research with the goal of generating sufficient preliminary data to significantly increase the odds of success in grant applications. More importantly, seed grants provided encouragement for the faculty to try new ideas and move into areas with potential for seminal discovery.
One of the first projects to bearfruit from a seed grant was an online database containing information on microbial biocatalytic reactions and biodegradation pathways for primarily xenobiotic, chemical compounds. The goal of the Biocatalysis/Biodegradation Database was to provide information on microbial enzyme-catalyzed reactions that were important for biotechnology. Professors Wackett and Ellis initially developed the concept through a seed grant and then maintained it through grants from the National Science Foundation and other organizations.
In addition to reactions and pathways, the database also contained biochemical periodic tables. It has been an important resource to researchers around the world.
External Review of BPTI
Ken Valentas initiated an external review of BPTI in 1994. The reviews ranked BPTI among the top five biotechnology centers in the U.S. The Microbial Engineering master’s program received high marks as well for its interdisciplinary focus.
Valentas Strengthens Industry Connections as Director
Ken Valentas received his PhD in Chemical Engineering at the University of Minnesota under Professor Neal R. Amundson. He spent a total of 24 years working in industry at Sinclair Oil, General Mills, and Pillsbury before coming to the Institute. A capable administrator with good interpersonal skills, he had risen to the level of Senior Vice President of Engineering before retiring and returning to the University.
A good listener, Valentas became particularly adept at negotiating complex issues involving intellectual property and industry relations.
In industry, Valentas had engineered improved and innovative methods of food processing. As an educator, he taught the principles of food process engineering and scale-up operations. In an organization promoting industrial-academic cooperation, Valentas brought to the directorship an ability to interpret positions on both sides, find common ground, and move forward. In his 15 years as director, the Institute’s faculty base grew from 5 to 15 members to achieve critical mass in the areas of biocatalysis and microbial physiology.
Biotechnology is a global enterprise. In 1996, BPTI established a formal exchange program with the Nara Institute of Science and Technology (NAIST) in Japan. The program grew out of informal connections that BPTI faculty had with NAIST and was crystalized and nurtured by Valentas.
Every year, 3 to 4 students from BPTI and NAIST participate in an exchange visit. The students are assigned to a specific laboratory based on their research interests, with the intent of learning new skills and techniques. Students from the host laboratory also became cultural mentors for the visitors. Lasting professional and personal bonds are forged in the process.
First BPTI Students Visit Nara Institute of Science and Technology (NAIST) in Japan
Among the first BPTI NIH Training Grant students who visited NAIST in Nara, Japan, in 1997, were Nick Abu-Absi, Susan Fuget Abu-Absi, Jerry Johnson, and Ben Hause. Students and faculty from NAIST also visited BPTI in the first of many exchanges over the years. The formal exchange program between these two institutions has both enhanced communications between researchers and provided an opportunity for both cultural and technological learning experiences.
In 2001, BTI welcomed the first students from Hochschule, Wadenswill, Switzerland: David Strupler, Otmar Baenziger, Michael Schoeb and Patrik Ottinger. Students from Wadenswill typically spend 4 to 6 months working with BTI graduate students in a BTI faculty laboratory. Upon return to Wadenswill the students each write a diploma thesis based on their learning experience in BTI. The BTI laboratory benefits from focused efforts of students who come well trained in techniques of applied biotechnology.
BPTI Becomes The BioTechnology Institute and Biodale Opens
Opened in 2001, Biodale is a consortium of University of Minnesota research service facilities that offer state-of-the-art instrumentation and user-friendly, walk-in service and training. Members of the business community, as well as the University community, are invited to use Biodale services and equipment. Each facility is staffed by specialized scientists and technicians.
The Biotechnology Resource Center provides capabilities to grow a wide range of microorganisms from shake-flask to 500L fermenter scale and to recover the cells and/or metabolites. A particular area of expertise is the expression and purification of recombinant proteins.
The Center for Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics provides support, equipment, and expertise for analyzing complex protein mixtures. The affiliated Proteome Analysis Core Facility has special equipment for comparing and differentiating samples.
The BioMedical Genomics Center provides a variety of genetic sequencing and analysis services for researchers.
The High Throughput Screening and Analysis Facility uses robots to screen large numbers of microbes, biological compounds, and chemical libraries to identify those with useful biological activity.
The Computational Biology Centers — Center for Computational Biology and Bioinformatics is a structure designed to foster research in all aspects of biology and medicine.
The Imaging Center (IC) is a state-of-the-art facility for imaging of biological specimens utilizing light microscopy, electron microscopy, and digital image analysis related to research, documentation and presentation.
Cargill Building Construction Begins
In 2001, construction began on the Microbial and Plant Genomics Building, specifically dedicated to genome research. The Cargill Corporation donated $10 million for its construction.
Biotechnology Resource Center Upgraded
To properly support faculty research and provide valuable outreach services to industry it is essential to operate a state-of-the-art fermentation facility. By 2000, it was clear that the era 1986 BRC was in need of technological updating and improvement of the physical plant. From 2000-2007, the facility was modernized with over $1 million invested for physical upgrades, new biorectors, with full instrumentation for teaching and research and a 500 litre Biolafitte reactor to incorporate the latest sanitary design and data acquisition capability.
The Incubator Labs/University Enterprise Laboratories
To demonstrate the need for incubator laboratory space for emerging biotechnology companies, the BTI converted 5,000 square feet of outmoded lab space to a suite of incubator labs. In close proximity to Biodale, occupants could readily access essential technical services, and more interaction was created between the biotechnology industry and BTI faculty.
From the opening in January 2001 until the opening of the University Enterprise Laboratories in 2005, the BTI incubator labs were fully utilized with a waiting list for future occupancy. The opening of the University Enterprise Laboratories built on the legacy of the incubator labs to offer a unique combination of affordable biotechnology-friendly lab space and in-house business counsel.
Events were held over Friday and Saturday, June 10th and 11th, to commemorate the 20th Anniversary of the BioTechnology Institute.
Professor Robert Brooker began the Friday symposium by welcoming over 150 attendees to the new Cargill Building of Microbial & Plant Genomics. Victor Bloomfield then spoke on the founding of BTI, and Prof. Michael Flickinger, the first director, talked about the foundation laid in the early years of the Institute’s existence. Professors Marty Dworkin and Arnold Fredrickson discussed the Microbial Engineering Graduate Program, and current BTI Director Ken Valentas gave an inside view of BTI faculty before the break for lunch and a student poster competition. Various BTI alumni and industry leaders added perspective to the symposium by discussing the important application of research and work done at the BioTechnology Institute.
Shortly after the symposium ended, a shuttle from the Gortner Lab building left for Harriet Island and a Mississippi River dinner Cruise aboard the historic Harriet Bishop paddle-wheeler, and a picnic was held Saturday on the St. Paul Campus Mall.
BTI Sponsors ISBP 2006
The 10th International Symposium on Biological Polyesters was held August 27-30 with Prof. Friedrich Srienc as Chair. The latest in a 20-year old series of biannual conferences, ISBP 2006 drew an international crowd of over 130 researchers. It featured 49 oral presentations, 59 poster contributions and included updates on major industrial initiatives in the field, including Archer Daniel Midland’s planned Metabolix Natural Plastics biorefinery in Clinton, Iowa.
Davis Appointed BTI Director
After an extensive search, H. Ted Davis was appointed BTI director effective Jan. 7, 2008. A faculty member in the University’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science since 1963, Davis served as department head for 15 years. He was named Regents Professor and is a member of the National Academy of Engineers. In 1995, he was named dean of the Institute of Technology and served nine years before leaving the post in 2004 to return to the faculty. In his new role as director of the BTI, Davis will lead efforts to boost interdisciplinary research for new and innovative sources of renewable energy. His tenure as BTI Director was cut short when Ted Davis passed away in 2009 .
Sadowsky appointed BTI Director
In 2009, long-term BTI faculty member Prof. Mike Sadowsky was appointed as BTI director and guided BTI until his retirement in 2021. During his leadership, BTI’s faculty was expanded and cross-disciplinary collaborations promoted through a seed grant program funded by the University of Minnesota’s Presidential Biocatalysis Initiative. BTI director Sadowsky was instrumental in establishing the MnDRIVE Environment Program in 2013– a partnership between the University of Minnesota and the State of Minnesota in five strategic areas, including Environment. Strategic cluster hires of new faculty in the College of Biological Sciences from 2010-2015 added new expertise in synthetic biology and bioremediation to BTI’s research portfolio. In addition to the exchange program, new partnerships were established in 2017 with the University of Tokyo and Osaka University. Most recently, in 2019 BTI engaged in a partnership with Takeda and began construction of the new Bioresource Center in 2021.
Schmidt-Dannert Appointed BTI Director
In 2022, with the retirement of Mike Sadowsky, Prof. Schmidt-Dannert was appointed as the new BTI Director and looks forward to continuing BTI’s mission to serve as the central resource and hub for biotechnology research and training at the University of Minnesota.