James L. Sorenson Molecular Biotechnology Building

The April 2012 dedication of the “James L. Sorenson Molecular Biotechnology Building—A USTAR Innovation Center” marks the beginning of a new era of interdisciplinary translational research at the University of Utah. It is the centerpiece of a visionary plan to bridge the U of U main campus and health sciences in order to accelerate research at the interfaces of medicine, engineering, pharmacy, science, business, law and digital media.

In 2006, the state of Utah passed a new measure designed to facilitate research and technology commercialization in an effort to strengthen Utah’s “knowledge economy” and generate high-paying jobs. The resulting Utah Science Technology and Research (USTAR) Initiative supports economic development in Utah by providing funding to Utah’s research universities to support the creation of fundamental technologies with the potential to encourage the growth of major industries in Utah.

USTAR funds support start-up packages for world-class faculty with proven track records of research and commercialization. The University of Utah currently has 31 USTAR faculty in 10 key research areas with additional expansion planned. One important area of innovation at the U of U is the new state-of-the-art interdisciplinary building that will foster groundbreaking research.

“The James L. Sorenson Molecular Biotechnology Building—A USTAR Innovation Center is the first building in the new multi-disciplinary research province that will link the western and eastern portions of the campus,” says Thomas Parks, University of Utah’s vice president for research. “We expect that the excellent facilities will draw faculty and student researchers there to collaborate on problems that are at the intersection of materials science, engineering and biomedical science.”

A Nexus Point for Global-Leading Interdisciplinary Work

With an emphasis on technology innovation that turns into companies and jobs, the 200,000-square-foot building will be home to the Brain Institute, the Nano Institute and the Department of Bioengineering, along with USTAR faculty researchers supported by graduates students, post-docs, junior faculty, administrative and laboratory personnel.

The unique design of the building allows for open laboratory space and for researchers to share equipment and facilities. The building contains extensive wet labs, and research computing space, faculty office space, meeting rooms and public areas designed to promote interaction within the scientific community.

“The set-up of the facility will encourage collaboration among the various disciplines,” says Richard Brown, dean of the College of Engineering. “It puts us in a select group of universities that can develop the most advanced tools and will provide opportunities for us to compete for big multidisciplinary federal programs that will not only fund cutting-edge research but also enhance our visibility.”

John White, director of the Brain Institute, says the USTAR building will aid basic neuroscience research with an aim to improve treatments for neurological and psychiatric disorders, and brain and spinal cord injuries. “The point of the Brain Institute is to generate cross-disciplinary research,” he says. “In this building, we are well-positioned to bring diverse teams from engineering and medicine together to generate new ideas.”

A State-of-the-Art Nanofabrication Facility

The new building also includes a state-of-the-art nanofabrication facility. Nanotechnology drives innovation in such fields as energy, medicine, communications and computing. With 18,000 square feet of cleanroom space, a biobay, and a 5,300 square ft. microscopy and materials characterization suite, the new Utah Nanofab is positioned to become a national nanotechnology center by forming industry, state and university partnerships that promote economic development and create advancements in research.

“The USTAR building with its unique combination of engineering/nanofabrication, physiology and analysis facilities and capabilities is a nexus point for globally leading interdisciplinary work on the interface of the most pressing healthcare and engineering challenges of our time,” says Florian Solzbacher, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of the Utah Nanofab.

“Nanotechnology can enable personalized healthcare, pharma and device research,” he says. “However the nanotechnology potential can only be effective in a setting where engineering researchers and scientists jointly and concurrently define and address challenges. This requires facilities where teams from all disciplines work side-by-side on the same or similar problems in the same environment. The USTAR building and new facilities enable just that.”

The Utah Nanofab currently leverages $83 million in federal funding for active research projects and services 45 Utah companies located from St. George to Logan, Utah.

Architects for the USTAR building were Lord, Aeck & Sargent, with Prescott Muir. Layton Construction was the construction manager. The building was designed to meet LEED Gold standards for energy efficiency from the U.S. Green Building Council and is on track for certification pending final review.

The project was funded through a $100-million commitment from the state of Utah through the USTAR Initiative, with $30 million in University and private funds, including the cornerstone gift of $15 million from the Sorenson Legacy Foundation, $1.25 million from the Micron Technology Foundation and private gifts from Dinesh and Kalpana Patel and the Huntsman Foundation, among others. The Sorenson Legacy Foundation’s gift has been recognized with the naming of the building as the James L. Sorenson Molecular Biotechnology Building—A USTAR Innovation Center, honoring one of the nation’s foremost biomedical innovators.