UT to build biomed site at J.J. Pickle campus

By Colin Pope
Austin Business Journal Staff
From the August 22, 2003 print edition of the Austin Business Journal

The University of Texas is planning a $25 million biomedical research building for its J.J. Pickle Research Campus in North Austin.

The building will be the home of UT's new Department of Biomedical Engineering, which is expected to be a boon for the local biotech sector. Funding was approved earlier this month by UT Board of Regents.

Department Chairman Ken Diller says the building is instrumental to the biomed program established last year at UT. In addition to classroom space, the building will provide a place for UT undergraduate students and faculty to carry out a full-fledged research program that focuses on three areas of biomedical engineering: computing, imaging, and molecular and cellular bioengineering.

Diller and other UT officials decline to discuss details of the project until later this year, when plans will be fleshed out. Diller did say UT plans to open the building sometime in 2005 at the J.J. Pickle campus, which is near MoPac Expressway and Braker Lane.

"We anticipate our moving forward on this will have a major impact on the biotech community," Diller says.

"Enrollment [in biomed engineering] has far exceeded our expectations ... and the entering class has the top academics of the whole university. The median SAT score for these students is 1,400. When they graduate, they are going to be very fruitful participants in the economy."

A highly skilled workforce is crucial for touting Austin as a player in the global biotech scene, says Tom Kowalski, president of the Austin-based Texas Healthcare and Bioscience Institute.

UT's biomed department began admitting students in the fall of 2002. UT admitted 163 students in the initial class and is admitting about 100 more freshman this semester, Diller says. Compared with last fall, applications for this semester have doubled.

After a four-year cycle, 500 undergraduates are projected to be studying in the department, which would make it about the size of UT's aerospace and chemical engineering departments, according to Ben Streetman, dean of UT's College of Engineering. If it reaches that size, UT could lay claim to the country's largest biomed engineering department.

UT officials say the biomed department is the only department UT's engineering program has added in the past 50 years.

Aside from bulking up Austin's highly educated workforce, the biomed program should spawn more inventions and technologies to commercialize, sponsorship of research projects and continuing education opportunities, UT administrators say. Industry liaisons at the school are seeking public/private partnerships.

UT biomed students already are studying potential cancer treatments in association with UT's M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. The search for an Anthrax antibody is another effort going through UT's biomed program.

Establishment of a biomed program at UT has been years in the making. UT's endeavor into bioengineering is being subsidized by two multiyear grants. As part of a consortium that includes Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Vanderbilt University, UT initially received $2 million from the National Science Foundation to develop a biomed curriculum.

The Whitaker Foundation, another national proponent of bioengineering education, is providing the department with at least $3 million more so it can fortify collaboration with UT's Health Science Center and M.D. Anderson, both of which are in Houston.

COLIN POPE can be reached by email at (cpope@bizjournals.com).