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Hormel Institute expands labs, staff

Brian Johnson//June 8, 2016

Hormel Institute expands labs, staff

Brian Johnson//June 8, 2016

A newly completed $40 million expansion for the University of Minnesota’s Hormel Institute center in Austin is uniquely designed and constructed to meet the needs of cancer researchers and their equipment.

The expansion, designed by Minneapolis-based RSP Architects and built by McGough Construction of Roseville, increases the size of the center to 152,000 square feet, creates space for 120 new faculty and staff, and adds 20 new labs to the institute at 801 16th Ave. NE.

Among the building’s most notable occupants: an unusual cryo-electron microscope, a highly sensitive piece of equipment that requires special attention to shield it from noise and vibration.

Project backers held a grand opening last week after two years of construction. Besides the labs, it houses a “live learning center” that promotes global collaboration for cancer research, and a 250-seat auditorium for cancer research conferences.

The project follows up on a 2008 expansion, which tripled the space of the original late 1950s-era building, said Craig Jones, building coordinator for the Hormel Institute, a U of M research unit.

Among the project challenges: the building has strict noise-dampening requirements to house the $5.6 million Titan Krios G2 cryo-electron microscope, one of the few microscopes of its kind in the world and the only one in the Midwest.

Highly sensitive to sound, vibration and air temperature, the microscope is housed in a 12-foot-high by 8-foot-wide enclosure within a 1,000-square-foot laboratory. It was imported from the Netherlands, where it was manufactured by FEI Co.

The microscope is so sensitive that conversations in a hallway outside the lab could disturb the microscope’s high-tech imaging, the institute says. Thick walls to block out the sound waves were just part of the solution.

“All the walls had to be covered with insulation and Styrofoam,” said Gary Ray, chair of the Hormel Foundation, a major backer of the project. “There can’t be any vibrations whatsoever in the surrounding areas.”

Craig Jones, building coordinator for the Hormel Institute, said small vibration caused by the Earth’s movement also had to be considered. The microscope is on the first floor with no basement underneath.

“There is a small amount of vibration in the ground, so we put a vibration table under it,” Jones said.

The microscope itself took about three months to install. FEI Co., the manufacturer, did most of the installation. “It rolls in there; then they put it together,” Jones said. “It comes in in pieces.”

Vibration and installation aren’t the only challenges.

Dean Hein, construction superintendent for McGough, said the project demanded a lot of coordination, and was complicated by bad soils, a complex web of utility relocations, and logistical concerns that required good use of “just-in-time” deliveries.

“I would not say it was difficult or impossible, because we do it all the time,” Hein said. “But it’s not your average build-a-warehouse kind of thing. There’s a lot more to it than that.”

Up to 90 trades people were on the job at any given time. In all, several hundred people worked on the project, Hein said.

The Hormel Institute was founded in 1942 by Jay C. Hormel, the son of George A. Hormel, founder of Austin-based Hormel Foods. It’s dedicated to developing “anti-cancer agents” through molecular research.

Ray said the expansion will help energize the local economy, and attract some of the “world’s leading researchers” to Austin, a southern Minnesota community of about 25,000 people.

The project gives an economic boost to the entire area, but it doesn’t necessarily compete with other jobs in the community because of the nature of the work, Ray said.

“By adding 120 highly educated [employees], with most of them having masters or PhD degrees, it helps strengthen schools, because these people want to be able to get the best education for their children,” he added.

The project received $13.5 million in state bonding money from the 2012 Legislature. Other funding sources include a $13.5 million match from the Hormel Foundation, and $8 million from the Hormel Foundation for recruiting “world-class faculty.”

Additional funding includes $1.5 each from the U of M and the Hormel Foundation for the “Living Learning Center.”

Staff photographer Bill Klotz went to Austin to visit the University of Minnesota’s Hormel Institute center: [portfolio_slideshow id=71672]

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