Van Andel Institute, 25 years later

Van Andel Institute

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — When David Van Andel stood in front of a gathered group of community leaders in 1996 for an official groundbreaking ceremony, work had already begun to transform an old parking lot at Michigan and Bostwick into what is today, a world-renowned center for medical research — Van Andel Institute.

“This is going to be a very historic day and a very historic moment not only for the Van Andel Institute but also for the Van Andel family,” David Van Andel said 25 years ago at the groundbreaking ceremony.

David Van Andel speaks at the 1996 VAI groundbreaking ceremony at the site of what is now the Van Andel Institute

It was his father and mother’s vision. They had announced the dream of the institute two years prior to the groundbreaking and David was charged to see that vision through as Chairman and CEO.

As his wife Carol puts it, they were handed a vision with no blueprint, and according to David by some accounts in the community, they were going about it all wrong.

“We weren’t near a big university. We weren’t known for life sciences. We didn’t have any of that stuff going on. But when you see what happens because of what we did and where we are today, all of a sudden you realize, this really is something spectacular,” David Van Andel said.

What the Van Andel’s set out to do was “unshackle science” as they put it. To break down the barriers surrounding research and give scientists the innovation to discover.

Immediately they attracted world-class researchers, including four noble laureates to their board of scientific advisors and renowned heart surgeon Luis Tomatis as their first president.

“We reached out literally around the globe to partner with people, to be able to further our science and their science. And it’s become one of our strengths as a result,” David Van Andel said.

That strength of attracting global talent came as West Michigan began to see a population spike. Getting those great minds to Grand Rapids would nearly seal it to get them to VAI.

“We’ve attracted such great talent, they bring their families and when they see West Michigan, when we physically can get them here, it’s a done deal,” Carol Van Andel said. “They see how much we have to offer with our schools and activities downtown.”

As the institutute began to take shape, medicine started to change. The Van Andel’s say their scientists started to develop new theories and ideas including, personalized medicine. It may be a common way of thinking now, but back when VAI started it was not.

“We were one of the leading organizations that began to develop tools that could help the personalized medicine, where you took the drugs to treat a specific disease but made it more personal to the type of disease that you had specifically,” David Van Andel said. “And in this case, that was a whole new frontier.”

As the number of published papers, peer-reviewed scientists and expertise of their scientists continued to grow, VAI started to separate itself as a world-class research institute.

Their work with Parkinson’s Disease led to groundbreaking discoveries that could link the incurable illness to the gut and appendix. Their cancer research has brought new ways to approach beating the disease with new kinds of therapies that “trick” cancer cells, among a long list of other new finds.

They started to push the field of epigenetics and metabolism studies — looking at how environments play a critical role in overall health.

“The pace of discovery is accelerating,” David Van Andel said. “So much of what we’ve done in the past with medicine has been treating the effect but not really getting at the cause. And now we’re focusing in on the cause and trying to alter the things that make that happen. And if we can do just a few of those things and take some of these diseases out of the equation, that’s a huge success to me. And I think we’re right on the forefront of being able to do that.”

But it’s not just work in the labs that are making a major impact. VAI started an education program to train young minds for the future of science, giving children and adults the chance to see science differently.

“We’re educating our next scientists. And I think we’re going to see some grow out of our education institute, the fourth through seventh graders, we have high schools, college internships, and then of course our graduate school. And I am very proud that we’re going to see some Van Andel Institute students lead the way for us,” Carol Van Andel said.

This year, they have their largest graduate program yet, with 14 students from all over the world putting their trust in a PhD from VAI work.

It’s a community built around medical advancement, a purple community poised for change. And so much has already changed in two-and-a-half-decades — the medical mile has filled out its name, the blueprint for Van Andel Institute has been clearly drawn, and the future of medicine is waiting for a VAI scientist to discover it.

“We’ve often said, we weren’t going to be the largest but were going to be the best at what we do. And we do punch ahead of our weight and we keep up with everybody else,” Carol Van Andel said. “We’re really proud of it, to be right here in West Michigan.”

“Before a doctor can diagnose, before a hospital can treat, a scientist somewhere has to have an aha moment and make a discovery,” David Van Andel said. “And if we can be that center that makes those discoveries, that leads all of those other things to happen, that’s a great feeling.”


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