Senate Capital Investment Committee gets a look at tomorrow in visit to the Hormel Institute

Published 3:29 pm Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Clarke: ‘This is going to be one of the top centers in the nation if we can pull this off’


As part of its four-community tour in southeastern Minnesota Tuesday and Wednesday, members of the Senate Capital Investment Committee made two stops in Austin, including a visit to The Hormel Institute to learn about the institute’s Minnesota Bioimaging Center (MBiC).

Similar to the Minnesota House’s Capital Investment Committee in October, the Senate’s committee also made a stop at Riverland Community College’s Student Services Design Renovation project, which the school is requesting $17,140,000 in bonding money to renovate the busiest part of the campus’ East Building to create a Student Services Hub.

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For the MBiC, the Institute is requesting $19.8 million in bonding money for the first phase of the project, which is projected to cost $50 million overall and would include the addition of a three-story addition extending north from the existing campus. A phase two to the addition would extend to the east off of that.

“This is going to be one of the top centers in the nation if we can pull this off,” HI Director Dr. Robert Clarke told senators during a short presentation. 

The project will expand the Institute’s cryo-electron microscopy (Cryo-Em) capabilities and then add new technology in the form of cryo-electron tomography (Cryo-ET).

Another major component of the expansion is to create a uniquely adapted STEM space for community educational outreach, especially for underserved students in the area. Depending on the success, Clark said he envisions a STEM center that could potentially open up opportunities to students throughout the state.

“We wish to include a STEM laboratory for young people that will allow us to create aspirations and to live up to those aspirations in young people,” Clark told senators. “There will be nothing like this in the country. This is going to be usable … for everybody.”

Some of the legislators had made visits to the Institute in the past to learn about prior work and projects. Wednesday’s visit impressed the large scope of the Institute’s vision for not only research, but education.

“It’s always exciting to be here,” said Committee Chair Sandra Pappas (D). “I was here two years ago. To be this far advanced in terms of this type of research on so many important diseases and the STEM education program I think is a really exciting opportunity.”

“We need more kids interested and involved in STEM education.”

Visits like Wednesday’s and the House’s in October, are important for legislators to get a better idea of the projects asking for money.

“There’s nothing like being able to see things hands-on,” Pappas said. “It makes a stronger impression on us, we can talk to local people. They don’t have to schlep to the capital and visit with us in a boring hearing room. It’s just much more fun to be out in the field.”

Sen. Gene Dornink (R), while not a member of the committee itself, also joined Wednesday’s visit and stressed how important the visits are, especially when legislators are hearing about so many projects with only so much money available.

However, he added that projects like the Institute’s MBiC speak for themselves in terms of importance, not only locally but regionally.

“It kind of sells itself,” Dornink said. “When we were here two years ago there was a real excitement, but there’s only so much money. Like Sen. (Dave) Senjum said, it’s not just a project for Austin. It’s a project for the state. I think that’s really the key point that will push it to the top.”

But the visits are a two-way street as well, allowing entities like the Institute to openly lobby for projects like the MBiC.

It’s more personal.

“For them to see our space and walk it and feel it, offers them a sense of what we’re trying to do that you can not convey via emails, Zoom presentations or pictures,” Clarke said. “You have to see it and walk it and feel it and get a sense of the people that are in this space and what they are doing and the excitement and importance of what goes on here.”

The vision of the MBiC is a broad one that could create an economic impact of just over $8 million for phase 1 alone.

Along with advancing the research value through the betterment of technology for scientists, Clarke envisions the educational reach to be just as impactful.

“It’s a wonderful institution that does many wonderful things,” Clarke said. “We want to live up to that and be a beacon and to do things that are new and different and evolving or impactful. We want to punch above our weight. We want Austin to punch above its weight.”

The Institute has already made long strides into Phase 1 including the hiring of Dr. Susan Hafenstein to serve as director of the Cryo-EM facility. It also expanded partnerships with state colleges and universities and acquired equipment for the tomography equipment.

According to the Institute, it has raised just over $11 million already for the project as well as procuring a $1.5 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control.

“They are wonderful people,” Clarke said of the senators. “They’ve supported us in the past and we hope they are able to continue supporting us as we go forward.”