High-Tech Business Brings Opportunity to Lansing

When the U.S. Department of Energy chose Michigan State University as the site for its $730 million Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB), it acknowledged the unique expertise of the university’s nuclear physics programs. It has led the nation in particle accelerator research since the 1950s, with discoveries and innovation that now offer unique economic development opportunities for the region.

MSU’s National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory (NSCL), the FRIB and high-tech businesses like Niowave and Ionetix are the starting point for an ambitious initiative to broaden the region’s nuclear industry footprint. Applications arising from this esoteric branch of nuclear research physics are broad: healthcare, material science, manufacturing and national defense.

The accelerator industry now accounts for about 700 jobs, a small slice of the workforce for a region endowed with world-class nuclear research facilities. To the economic development leaders, this compact foundation is an opportunity for new cutting-edge businesses and high-paying jobs. They see the accelerator field as a magnet for billions of dollars in private investment.

“There’s an opportunity for us. We started working on this about two years ago, looking at the industries, at facilities. The potential is endless,” said Steve Willobee, chief operating officer for the Lansing Economic Area Partnership (LEAP) and who oversees the organization’s Accelerating Capital initiative.

LEAP, with a $70,000 grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, has advanced an Accelerating Capital Strategy to leverage existing resources and expertise to develop the region as a larger player in the particle accelerator field.

It commissioned Kuntzsch Solutions, a Grand Ledge-based community and economic development firm, to prepare a study that identified the Lansing region’s competitive advantages and challenges when measured against other regions
with significant accelerator industries.

“We want to be in a position at the end of the process to have an action report and a lot of businesses that we can target in an effective and efficient way,” said Willobee.

LEAP believes there are at least 200 companies worldwide that are suitable targets for its recruitment initiative, said Brent Case, LEAP’s vice president of business attraction and the organization’s point person for accelerating capital.

So far, what LEAP has found is that Lansing’s population – youthful, diverse, educated and international – matches requirements of the accelerator industry. It also identified affordable housing, high quality education, entrepreneurs and a strong mix of industries and workforce traits as regional strengths.

The accelerator study cited four broad categories of skills and expertise found in the region that align with the requirements of accelerator industry businesses. They are:

Advanced manufacturing skills related to the accelerator industry’s need to fabricate, manufacture and operate precise and customized machines.

Biomedical education, healthcare and manufacturing institutions able to capitalize on accelerator diagnostic and treatment segments.
Information technology data collection and processing skills that align with the industry needs.

Logistic and distribution location and expertise to support the import, export and transport requirements of the accelerator industry.

As for weaknesses, it identified limited workforce specialization, lagging education programs, the region’s slow growth rate, aging infrastructure and negative perception of the quality of life.

LEAP’s Accelerating Capital Strategy is detailed in a 124-page report that, in addition to assessing strengths and weaknesses, also outlined business development strategies and marketing and outreach needs. It included benchmark regions that have successfully cultivated the particle accelerator industry and the comparison illustrates a serious talent gap.

The report found that just 5.6 percent of Lansing’s workforce has the skills needed to support accelerator industries. Of benchmark communities, Rochester, Minn., at 23.1 percent, has the largest share of ready workers, while Knoxville, Tenn. has the lowest at 9 percent; the U.S. average is 8 percent.

“To meet the needs of particle accelerator companies, it is critical for the region to develop talent in occupation types such as nuclear and chemical engineering, as well as electromechanical, chemical and semiconductor production,” the Accelerating Capital study found. Adding to the education challenge, when compared with benchmark regions, Lansing has a lower number of graduates in engineering and IT programs.

Case said that finding the high-tech talent needed for a vibrant Lansing-based accelerator is a “high-class problem” that will require the business and academic community to support programs and promote the industry’s opportunities to students.

While the broad array of skills needed by the industry can be provided by many education institutions, MSU’s nuclear physics program is a resource few communities can match. It is the largest campus-based nuclear science facility in the U.S. and awards approximately 10 percent of the nation’s nuclear science doctorates.

With 595 employees, an annual budget of $23 million and a capital plant worth $300 million, the NSCL already ranks as one of the region’s larger business enterprises. The FRIB, when it opens in the 2020s, will elevate the MSU-based facility to the preeminent role as a nuclear research site.

“The FRIB will be the world’s most powerful isotope accelerator. It will be able to provide entrepreneurs and innovators any isotope in research quality,” said Thomas Glasmacher, FRIB laboratory director and project director and university distinguished professor.
Currently, at the NSCL, about 3 percent of beam time now goes to commercial companies. But this share will grow when the FRIB comes online.

“We are very attuned to the research community. But we need to be more customer-friendly to interface with entrepreneurs,” Glasmacher said.

What the region’s economic developers hope for from an MSU/FRIB connection are more commercial and entrepreneurial business like Niowave. The Lansing-based company develops and manufactures medical isotopes, particle accelerators and related products.

The company, with 70-plus employees and operations in two area locations, is working closely with LEAP on the Accelerating Capital project.

“Because of FRIB and our presence, we are seen as a center for superconductor accelerators, one of the key places in the world,” said Jerry Hollister, Niowave’s chief operating officer.

His company recently opened a $79 million manufacturing facility at the Capital Region International Airport. It is still testing its systems and processes and plans to shift production from the Maple Street headquarters to the Clinton County site.

The company currently seeks to hire accelerator and nuclear physicists, radio chemists, engineers in many fields, machinists, welders and technicians; jobs that reflect what Hollister finds special about Lansing’s workforce.

“Talent is one of the reasons we are located here and stay here. There is a unique combination of scientists primarily from MSU and other world-class universities. There is also a manufacturing base here in mid-Michigan,” noted Hollister.

But he cautioned that for Lansing to grow its accelerator industries it will have to manage its talent pool carefully and strategically.

For Glasmacher, who recruits from Chicago and large markets on the East and West coast, livability is vital for the scientists and technicians he recruits.

“When people come here they are pleasantly surprised to finds things they didn’t expect. Whole Foods is a good thing. Before that Foods for Living was a good thing.” He cited Eastwood Towne Center, Old Town, Horrocks Farm Market, Monticello Market, good schools and inexpensive housing as examples of larger city amenities that he uses to promote the region. “We have all of the stuff right here. We just need to be able to articulate our case. Size doesn’t really matter.”

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Mickey Hirten

Mickey Hirten

Mickey Hirten is an award winning writer and editor. He has been executive editor of the Lansing State Journal, the Burlington Free Press in Vermont, and was the financial editor and a columnist for the Baltimore Evening Sun. He is the current president of the Michigan Press Association. His wife, Maureen Hirten, is director of the Capital Area District Library.

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