The MEDC’s Fred Molnar loves his job helping biotech companies succeed.
By Jackie Headapohl
Photos by Jessica Polk
On an unassuming industrial drive in Plymouth sits a building that’s doing a lot to diversify Michigan’s economy. Once home to pharmaceutical company Pfizer, which used the building for drug development work, the building now houses the Michigan Life Science and Innovation Center (MLSIC), home to dozens of high-tech startups.
The building, owned by the Michigan Land Bank and overseen by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), is under the leadership of Fred Molnar, vice president of entrepreneurism and innovation for MEDC.
“I think it’s fate that I ended up here,” said Molnar, who lives in Dexter.
Molnar has enjoyed a 30-year career in biotech and previously was biotech venture director at the MEDC. Before overseeing MLSIC, he was COO of a biotech startup that spun off from the University of Illinois at Champaign. He helped to take the company to $10 million in annual sales. Eventually, it was sold to Sony.
Molnar stayed with Sony for about three years until he got the opportunity to run MLSIC. “It was the perfect match. I wanted to give back to the state that I love and finish my career here,” he said.
The MLSIC facility opened about seven years ago and its primary goal is to diversify the Michigan economy by incubating young tech companies, who lease space while they develop their ideas.
“At some point, they graduate and set up shop with their own building and hire additional people. That grows and diversifies the state economy,” he said. “What I like about my job more than anything is that we’re making a difference. The advances going on here are life-changing.”
Molnar leads the six members of MEDC’s entrepreneur and innovation team, which works with Michigan high-tech startups and universities to connect entrepreneurs to the support services and capital they need to launch or grow their businesses. His education runs the gamut — from electronics to biology to business — so he’s uniquely suited for the challenges at hand.
Already MLSIC has multiple success stories, such as Esperion, the Ann Arbor-based discoverer of Lipitor, the world’s largest selling drug, and Delphinus, a Novi-based company revolutionizing breast cancer detection that was originally spun out of Wayne State University.
What MLSIC provides first and foremost is lab space, something hard to come by for biotech startups in Michigan. The startups lease the lab space from MLSIC, covering the costs of running the building.
MEDC has multiple programs offering financial support to entrepreneurs trying to launch high-tech companies in biotech, the life sciences, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, IT, advanced materials and mobility.
It’s difficult for startups to get the capital they need through normal channels while they’re proving out their concepts. The MEDC offers several funds to help young companies until they can attract capital on their own, license their idea or generate revenue by selling their product.
“A lot of great ideas come out of our research universities,” Molnar said, “but the ideas have to be proven out. MEDC has a ‘Proof of Concept Fund’ that provides up to $50,000 to get these ideas off the ground. MEDC also funds a talent network of mentors who work with entrepreneurs.”
If an idea shows promise after this stage, it can take advantage of the “MTRAC Program,” which provides up to $250,000 in funding for universities and not-for-profit research centers across the state. Other funds include the “First Capital Fund,” which provides up to $150,000, and the “Pre-Seed Fund 2.0,” which provides up to $500,000.
“To sum it up, MEDC steps in to help companies grow when there is no one else willing to take a risk,” Molnar said.
The goal of the funds is to become self-sustaining, Molnar says. “Companies repay the debt or as the company grows it increases in value, which means sometimes more money is returned than originally invested.”
The MEDC doesn’t choose the “winners and losers who get the funding,” Molnar said. “Those decisions are made by the universities’ review committees or organizations that administer the funding programs. MEDC is the connector to funding.”
Once a company “graduates” from an incubator such as MLSIC, MEDC oversees and works with 17 “SmartZones,” which are defined geographic regions across the state to help develop high-tech businesses — Ann Arbor Spark, Tech Town and Automation Alley are just a few — to help those businesses grow and expand.
Molnar said he never has the same day twice. He travels the state working with companies, SmartZones and universities. He also manages MLSIC to ensure that the Innovation Center is run as a business. “Our goal, which we are successfully meeting, is to break even so taxpayers don’t have to subsidize this. We are proud that we do not take one taxpayer dollar.”
Molnar says he loves to enjoy Michigan’s outdoors when he has the chance “as well as anything motorized.”
He’s happy to be at work, too. “The companies we work with are changing lives. I absolutely love what I do. I can’t even call it a job.” NS