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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, May 31, 2002

Waimanalo firm envisions biotech incubator

By Eloise Aguiar
Advertiser Windward O'ahu Writer

Plant Research Corp. owner Kevin Andrews shows off lab space that would be made available to biotech startups.

Richard Ambo The Honolulu Advertiser

WAIMANALO — A Waimanalo company wants to become an incubator for budding biotech businesses and is drawing interest from state officials despite neighborhood board fears that the proposal could turn prime agricultural land into a light industrial site.

Kevin Andrews, owner of Plant Research Corp., has the space and facility that he said could lead to agricultural innovation and would make better use of the land, which sells for $100,000 to $200,000 an acre. A biotech incubator also could provide an economic boost to the community, said Andrews, president of the newly formed Waimanalo Chamber of Commerce.

"Biotech is a permitted use and it might be the ticket," said Andrews, who has operated his business for 14 years. "I want to see something going in Waimanalo."

Andrews will pitch his idea today to representatives of the state Department of Business Economic Development & Tourism, the University of Hawai'i, potential investors, the Waimanalo chamber and the Waimanalo Neighborhood Board.

Andrews said he foresees a range of businesses all involved in improving agriculture production and employing such technologies as cross pollination, hybridization and cloning to increase production and improve crops.

Plant Research manufactures and markets sugar cane products and owns Aloha Ardvaark Corp., a wastewater and industrial ag-waste management business, and Hawai'i Cytogenetics Inc., a biotech development company founded to exploit a continuous method for mass production of living plant cells. The process will be used principally for the low-cost production of pharmaceuticals, fragrances, natural coloring and flavorings, Andrews said.

Plant Research and several other companies operate out of a 34,000-square-foot building on 90,000 square feet of land on Mo'oiki Street, in the back of Waimanalo. The facility has a 16,000-square-foot laboratory with running water and biological containment tanks underground. Most of the facility is vacant, Andrews said.

Andrews said he envisions his facility catering to such people as university agriculture graduates with new ideas to research, develop and possibly turn into a new business.

Neighborhood board chairman Wilson Ho said he is unfamiliar with Andrews' plan but the board has opposed his past activities, which included renting warehouse space to a boat builder and a flower-pot manufacturer.

"We're trying to keep Waimanalo a farming community, and he has a lot of industrial things going on," Ho said.

The biotech idea brings back memories of another biotech company that failed and caused years of controversy in the community, Ho said. Unisyn Biowaste Technology, a waste recycling company, closed in 1999 amid neighbors' complaints about the odor and the company's inability to remedy the problem.

Ho said he fears the research-and-development proposal could lead to similar problems.

The state is interested in exploring Andrews' proposal and hooking him up with people who can help him, said Sharon Narimatsu, deputy director of DBEDT.

The Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawai'i on the Big Island is the closest thing the state has to a biotech incubator, Narimatsu said. That site houses mostly marine startup businesses, including those involved with micro algae, various seafoods and disease-resistant products. Other tech-incubator facilities operate out of Manoa and on Maui.

Building other biotech incubator facilities has been discussed, including a medical biotech facility in Kaka'ako at the University of Hawai'i's new medical school. Andrews' proposal could gain state support if there is enough demand, she said.

"We're doing just exploratory at this stage," Narimatsu said. "If there is enough of an interest in the private sector and if there is a large demand on the part of the private sector, then we would go to the Legislature to see if funding can be made available."

Reach Eloise Aguiar at eaguiar@honoluluadvertiser.com or 234-5266.