Elk Run investor lays out vision for future of medicine

Meeting students
Steve Burrill meets students at a high school science fair at Minnesota West Community and Technical College in Worthington.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

To hear Steve Burrill tell it, we are witnessing right now, a historic change in the practice of medicine. Speaking to several hundred people at a bioscience conference in Worthington, Burrill said the old system still dominates, as it has for a couple thousand years.

"We waited for you to get sick," Burrill said. "And when you got sick you went to some form of a healer. And they did something, and you lived or died."

Burrill said that sort of 'wait to get sick system' is giving way to preventative medicine. The idea is to catch and fix abnormalities before they blossom into disease. That's where the computer chip comes in. Burrill said, just as on-board computers constantly monitor the health of your car or truck, the implanted chip will track the well being of your body.

Steve Burrill
Steve Burrill is part of an effort to develop a billion dollar biobusiness park near Rochester.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

"It'll tell you your blood pressure is too high, your cholesterol is too high, time for you to take your pill, time for you to go to the doctor," Burrill said. "So what we're going to do with health care, the same that we have with automobiles and others, is we're going to integrate technology in the way that we monitor our state of wellness."

This may sound far-fetched, but Burrill has the track record to be taken seriously. He's helped build companies like Amgen and Genentech. Several years ago Scientific American magazine recognized him for his contributions to the biotech industry. If his vision for medicine's future comes to pass, there will be lots of new medical devices that will make someone lots of money.

Burrill sees the yet-to-be-built Elk Run BioBusiness Park in the community of Pine Island near Rochester as a potential major player in those health care changes. He hopes to attract hi-tech medical companies to the site, plus have people live there as well.

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"We anticipate having 20,000 to 25,000 people working there," Burrill said. "In an industrial park, a wellness community, a retirement community."

Elk Run master plan
The master plan for the Elk Run development, which would include residential, retail, business and education elements as well as a biobusiness center -- which is shown in purple at the top of the map.
Image courtesy of Elk Run

But all of that is in a future that some people think may be painted a little too rosy. So far, there's been no construction at Elk Run. Burrill said work should start on the first building this year. But he admits he can't say what that building will be. And he still has to raise the money to fund the project.

Harlan Jacobs has walked down some of the same business paths as Burrill. Jacobs is a Twin Cities based developer. He said he wishes Elk Run success, but said these are difficult times. He said venture capitalists all across the U.S. are having a hard time raising money.

"Many of these existing venture capital funds are doing triage, and they're literally deciding which companies are going to die now, which companies might get a little more money and which companies are going to get a lot more money," Jacobs said. "I think that that's a difficult environment in which one would raise a billion dollar fund."

Steve Burrill agrees finding investors will be difficult. But he said not all of the billion dollars has to come from outside sources. He said his company has substantial funds on hand. He won't detail how much, but he said some of that money could be used to get Elk Run off the ground.

"We're looking at technology, we're looking at facilities, we're looking at companies," Burrill said. "We have capital to invest today. We have opportunities that are pretty interesting today. So, we're up and running. This isn't something that's going to begin, this is something that has begun."

Burrill said the Elk Run Project will build on some unique Minnesota resources: the Mayo Clinic, the University of Minnesota and the region's successful medical device companies. Whether he can combine those resources into a futuristic biotech business complex will be decided on some undeveloped land near Rochester.