Where's the Wet Lab? Focus Group and Tour Outcome of Potential Wet Lab Space in Stewartville, MN

Building at 1 Rochester Medical Drive, Stewartville, Minnesota.

Building at 1 Rochester Medical Drive, Stewartville, Minnesota.

The entrepreneurial and startup scene in Rochester and the surrounding communities is growing, particularly in biobusiness. But we still have one missing essential component: wet lab space.

What is a wet lab?

Picture a wet lab as your stereotypical laboratory benchtop plus anything you would need to do a science experiment. A wet lab is a space where biological materials, liquids, and chemical materials could be safely handled and used. It’s a place to do biology, or chemistry, or make bio- or medical products. A wet lab typically contains some sort of specialized ventilation system. It has gas. It has plumbing. And perhaps most importantly, it contains laboratory equipment.

Why do you need a wet lab?

As opposed to a dry lab, where experiments can be simulated or data churned on a computer, the bioscience entrepreneur really needs a separate space. These experiments, or manufacturing, could not be done in a kitchen or basement. The entrepreneur creating things like medical devices or vaccines needs a very clean, controlled, sterile environment.

Lab equipment is the most important part. Things like fume hoods, centrifuges, sterilization equipment, liquid nitrogen tanks- I could go on and on- are very expensive and can mount a significant barrier to entry for aspiring biobusiness entrepreneurs. A wet lab offers these entrepreneurs shared access to equipment, lowering some of the cost to launch their concept.

We have a potential wet lab facility right in Stewartville, Minnesota that could serve as a regional hub for entrepreneurship. The space is already built and may just need some easy modifications to suit potential tenant needs.

Last week, Joya Stetson from Community and Economic Development Associates (CEDA) and Stewartville Economic Development Authority led a focus group and tour of a potential wet lab facility in Stewartville. The group was composed of affiliates of Rochester Area Economic Development, Inc. (RAEDI), Destination Medical Center Economic Development Agency (DMC EDA), and City of Stewartville, and members of the entrepreneurial, construction, engineering, and architecture communities.

A wet lab could have long-lasting benefits not just to Rochester, but to southeast Minnesota as a whole. A wet lab could bring companies into the area and create local jobs. This type of facility could be the spark needed to ignite and mobilize our entrepreneurial bioscience sector.

The main facility of interest was previously owned by Bard Medical, a vascular, urology, and oncology medical device manufacturer. This 57,500 square foot facility is located at 455 Rochester Medical Drive NW in the northern portion of Stewartville. The building was constructed in 2014 and was only used for a short period of time.

The facility is ready or could be easily converted into wet lab or manufacturing space. It has a complex heating and ventilation system and ample power capabilities. The space also features a ISO Class 8 Equivalent clean room, although it is not certified. The facility contains a conveyer belt system to enable mass production, a warehouse, pallet storage area, and ample shipping and receiving capabilities. The building contains a flammables and chemical storage room, an office area, and breakroom.

Utilization of the space is flexible; the building could easily be renovated to suit any particular need and be subdivided.

Wet labs do work. We have a shining example in University Enterprise Labs (UEL) in Saint Paul. UEL is largely used as a biotech incubator for very early stage companies out of the University of Minnesota. The facility has been running for over ten years. There is an immense need for wet lab space in the Twin Cities; UEL has been operating at 98-99% occupancy for at least the last six years. They even have to turn people away.

This year, UEL launched the largest construction project since its initial buildout, converting 14,000 square feet of office space into four dry labs, two wet labs, and two offices.

There’s no question that UEL fulfilled a need for wet lab space in the Twin Cities. And that need is apparently not yet quenched.

There’s also no doubt that wet lab space is limited in southeast Minnesota. We need a wet lab. But where should we put it and how can we finance its buildout and operation?

The facility of interest, at 455 Rochester Medical Drive NW in Stewartville, is already built. It’s already outfitted for the production of medical devices. It has infrastructure for a wet lab. Even UEL was not built from scratch; the building used to be a distribution center for Target. Plus, UEL had early sponsors, like 3M and Xcel Energy, who took on some percentage of the initial costs.

Besides the previous Bard Medical manufacturing facility, there are two other Bard Medical facilities for sale in Stewartville that could contribute to a growing biobusiness ecosystem. The first is a mixed use light manufacturing facility right across the street at 1 Rochester Medical Drive NW. The second is another manufacturing building at 1500 2nd Avenue NW in Stewartville.

The facilities are for sale together- the asking price is currently ~$11M- or individually. The sale price on the 455 Rochester Medical Drive property is ~$4.5M.

“These structures represent a huge opportunity for a business or businesses. The manufacturing facilities are highly sophisticated and their location in Stewartville, Minnesota is primed for distribution. As the community is located on US Highway 63 and Interstate 90 with close proximity to Highways 30 and 52 in addition to FedEx Ground's presence in the Stewartville Schumann Business Park, ground shipping is notably facilitated. There is also nearby access to the Rochester International Airport, which is only 2 miles from the City, to accommodate easy movement of goods by air,” said Stetson.

We have a burgeoning bioscience and medical entrepreneurial community in southeast Minnesota, but is it large enough to fill the space? We do have some cross-pollination between the Twin Cities and Rochester in bioscience development, but are these companies interested in having startup activity around Rochester?

Oh, the possibilities.

Wet lab space is a topic of massive interest to the community. If you have a comment about this or any potential wet lab space, please leave it in the comment section below to contribute and spawn a fluid conversation around the topic.

Any further questions or inquiries about the specifics of the three Bard Medical facilities can be directed here.