WMU News

'Stick around' message paid off for former corporate scientist

July 1, 2003

KALAMAZOO -- Six years before Kalamazoo's "Stick around" ad campaign was even a twinkle in its creator's eye, Dr. Hector Quemada was told he was out of his corporate research job if he chose to stay in the city he loved.

Today, Quemada is an adjunct faculty member at Western Michigan University who has turned the research prowess he once practiced at what was then the Upjohn Co. and Asgrow Seed Co. into a series of successful, federally funded projects, including one newly announced effort that will bring in the largest grant ever awarded to WMU's Department of Biological Sciences.

So successful has Quemada's transition from Upjohn scientist to University research specialist been, that WMU officials consider it a model for what could happen if WMU is able to launch a Life Sciences Research and Commercialization Center. The University has been working with state officials and local legislators to find funding to create the center, which would be used to attract displaced Pfizer scientists who want to remain in Michigan and launch new research efforts that could lead to new developments in the life sciences.

"Hector is something of a poster child for how well this can work," says Dr. Alexander Enyedi, chairperson of the Department of Biological Sciences and Quemada's research partner in the latest project to secure federal funding.

That federal funding will bring between $1.3 and $1.5 million to the University for its role as part of a nearly $15 million total award made by the U.S. Agency of International Development to a consortium that also includes Michigan State University, the International Food Policy Research Institute, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and Agriculture & Biotechnology Strategies of Canada. (See related release in this packet.)

Enyedi and Quemada have been research colleagues for nearly a decade, and it was that connection that helped keep Quemada in Kalamazoo in 1997 after a series of sales and mergers that began in 1994 resulted in the Upjohn unit for which Quemada worked, Asgrow Seed Co., closing its Kalamazoo operations. Quemada, a plant specialist, was given a choice--move to Des Moines, Iowa, or St. Louis or lose his position.

For Quemada and his family, who had put down their roots in Kalamazoo, it was a tough decision, and one he does not envy the group of current Pfizer employees faced with similar quandaries.

"We considered Kalamazoo our home and had children in school who we didn't want to uproot," Quemada remembers.

He chose to stay and began an agricultural biotechnology consulting firm, Crop Technology Consulting Inc. With Enyedi's support, he strengthened his ties to WMU and was provided with a small office and laboratory space in Haenicke Hall. The two continued their work together, and Quemada eventually won a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to perform risk assessment research on the biosafety of genetically altered crops. That work, along with other work done by his consulting firm, led to the current USAID project, which also is aimed at biosafety.

"Without that lab access and the institutional affiliation, I probably wouldn't have gotten the USDA grant," Quemada says. "With the USAID grant, it was even more important to have the kind of infrastructure that WMU has provided. I'd be buried in paperwork if I tried to do this on my own.

In addition to his research, Quemada has been an active lecturer on campus--speaking to undergraduate and graduate classes on agricultural biotechnology, biosafety and regulatory policy. He also has served on three graduate student committees and currently is overseeing the research of one graduate student.

"We're fortunate to have Hector in Kalamazoo," Enyedi says. "He has lived through corporate mergers, company spin-offs and tempting relocation packages. Despite all of this, he has maintained his commitment to live and work in West Michigan."

For Quemada, living through that experience has left him with some insights he's eager to share. In fact, he's working locally with Southwest Michigan First to help offer the management experience that start-up firms need.

"The support infrastructure for people who want to stay around is much better now then when I made my decision," Quemada notes. "Scientists can seriously consider doing things that I couldn't do six years ago. I started a consulting business because that seemed to be the only way to make this work. There was not venture capital available or help with the business side of start-ups."

But the departure of Asgrow, Quemada says, provided a troubling forshadowing of what could come as a result of the Pharmacia/Pfizer merger.

"Six years ago, we had what was one of the leading plant biotechnology groups in the world," he notes. "Now, almost all of that intellectual capital is gone."

Media contact: Cheryl Roland, 269 387-8400, cheryl.roland@wmich.edu

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