Inside a nondescript downtown building, a mock hospital and high-tech spaces to dissect human cadavers and create lifesaving medical devices are part of a plan to shape the region’s future.
Leaders say the launch of the new $13.3 million headquarters for the Austen BioInnovation Institute in Akron (ABIA) at 47 N. Main St. is a pivotal step in their attempt to expand the local economy through medical-related research, education and commercialization.
The partnership — forged by the city’s three hospital systems, the University of Akron and Northeast Ohio Medical University — recently opened its state-of-the-art headquarters in the old Summit County Job and Family Services building.
The renovation features a cadaver lab and a high-tech simulation center that enables area health-care providers, students and companies from throughout the region and nation to gain skills or try out new products.
The headquarters also houses an auditorium, meeting and educational spaces and the BioInnovation Institute’s offices, as well as an Akron location for the Northeast Ohio Medical University, which is in Rootstown Township.
Mayor Don Plusquellic called the partners’ efforts to work together to create the new BioInnovation Institute facility “one of the major accomplishments of this community.”
“People will benefit from the jobs, and the economy will be helped” by what’s going on at the institute, he said.
Partners form institute
The BioInnovation Institute pulls together the University of Akron’s polymer-science research knowledge, the medical college’s musculoskeletal and research expertise and the strength in orthopedics, wound healing and other clinical areas at Akron Children’s Hospital, Akron General Health System and Summa Health System.
The institute formed in 2008, when the five partners pledged a combined $20 million toward the initiative. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation pushed the project forward with a $20 million grant.
FirstEnergy Corp. also contributed $10 million over a 10-year period to support efficiency-related technology.
“It was the three hospitals and the two universities coming together to really create the synergistic effort that was bigger than any of them could do on their own,” said Jennifer Thomas, the Knight Foundation’s program director for Akron. “It’s leveraging the strength that we already had — strength in polymers, strength in research — and really striving to become this global hub of innovation.”
The goal of the BioInnovation Institute is to use the region’s research and medical strengths to create startup companies that bring jobs to the community.
Within a decade, the Akron-area partnership wants to create at least 2,100 jobs in area medical companies.
“The idea ... is to make the partners stronger faster,” said Matt Becker, co-director of the BioInnovation Institute’s Center for Biomaterials and Medicine and an associate professor of polymer science at the University of Akron.
The Center for Biomaterials and Medicine is one of five centers at the BioInnovation Institute that work together to meet the partnership’s goals. The other centers focus on community health, medical device development, biomaterials and training.
Grants support project
Until the permanent headquarters recently opened, the BioInnovation Institute’s offices had been housed nearby in the United building, at Market and Main streets downtown.
The bulk of the institute now is housed in the bottom three floors and basement of former county building.
The county sold the building to the Development Finance Authority of Summit County for the appraised value, about $2.5 million, and an additional $190,000 to cover outstanding debt for previous improvements.
The economic-development agency then issued $7 million in bonds to help renovate the bottom three floors and the basement for the BioInnovation Institute, as well as an Akron office for Neomed, according to Chris Burnham, the finance authority’s president and executive director.
The project also received a $2.5 million low-interest loan from the state, $1 million in equity from the institute and $250,000 from the county for HVAC work on the top floors, Burnham said.
FirstEnergy also contributed $2 million over a two-year span for items related to energy-efficiency certification (known as LEED) in the construction and operation of the building, he said.
The institute is paying about $620,000 a year to lease the space — an amount that covers the annual payments due on the bonds and state loan. Eventually, the institute plans to expand into the entire six-story building.
County Executive Russ Pry said the county is working to find a new location for the remaining Job and Family Services employees who work on the top three floors of the downtown office building.
Pry said the BioInnovation Institute is a better use for the downtown space, which is within a biomedical corridor designed by Akron for medical-related economic development.
“This is right in the middle of the biomedical corridor,” Pry said. “It fits in real nicely.”
Simulation center featured
Dr. Frank L. Douglas, president and chief executive of the BioInnovation Institute, said the new headquarters is “a tremendous resource not only for the partners but for the entire region.”
The building already has been getting national attention since portions began opening last month.
A contingent of business and community leaders from Milwaukee is coming to Akron this week to tour the headquarters and learn how the BioInnovation Institute partnership could possibly be copied in Milwaukee.
The facility features a bioskills lab in the basement. The nine-station lab allows medical professionals to learn and sharpen their skills with cadavers or simulated materials.
“We don’t want your first time to be with a patient,” explained Dr. Michael Holder, the BioInnovation Institute’s director of the Center for Simulation and Integrated Health Care Education.
In medicine, as in sports, practice makes perfect, Holder said.
“In the past, you’d have to go to a major metropolitan city,” he said. “Now we can have world-class training here in Akron.”
The center should save the partner hospitals money by allowing them to provide training without shutting one of their operating rooms, which can cost anywhere from $200 to $500 a minute in lost revenue, Holder said.
The bioskills lab also has video equipment to watch live surgery from Children’s Hospital, Akron General Medical Center or Summa Health System.
Along with being used for training, the bioskills lab can lure medical-device companies to the region to watch how new products are used, Holder said.
“You can have industry come in and they can actually watch providers work with the equipment,” Holder said. “It’s easier to get into this environment than a hospital.”
Douglas said the highlight of the new headquarters is a medical simulation center on the building’s first floor.
The center allows medical professionals and students to train in a mock operating room, emergency department, intensive-care unit or obstetrical unit with robotic patients and other simulation tools.
A realistic ambulance bay and decontamination area allow emergency medical personnel to prepare for disasters.
One of the first major regional events in the center will take place this week, when the BioInnovation Institute will host a regional advanced disaster life support course, Holder said. Eventually, the institute wants to draw participants from across the country for the course.
In addition, the headquarters’ first floor has a 120-seat auditorium and video conference center, which can be used for community events.
Testing areas and smaller conference spaces also are available. A standardized patient center on the second floor allows doctors and students to hone their interviewing and diagnostic skills by working with actors portraying patients.
Cameras throughout the real-looking, eight exam rooms feed into a computerized learning management system, which can be used for instructors to analyze how participants perform.
The second floor also has a lab for making prototypes of medical devices being developed locally.
“We want people to bring their ideas into this space,” Holder said.
The third floor houses the BioInnovation Institute’s offices, as well as the satellite office for Neomed.
The county continues to lease the top three floors for some Job and Family Services functions.
Plusquellic said the facility is “an important part of the sales pitch” when it comes to recruiting doctors, researchers and industry to the community.
In the future, he said, he would also like to see an incubator within the institute to house start-up biomedical companies that could locally grow with the support of the institute.
“What researchers sometimes don’t completely figure out is the economic part of this,” Plusquellic said. “With the money that is spent in a community to support research, the community, the area, the region should get the benefit from the jobs that flow from the research and development.”