20 years of groundbreaking discoveries

Student in lab gear hunches over lab table to fill vials with a pipette

Editor’s note: This story is featured in the 2023 year in review.

Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute is gearing up for a year of celebrations. In 2024, researchers, staff and students alike will gather to mark the institute’s 20th anniversary.

The Biodesign Institute works to solve complex problems in human health, sustainability and community safety by bringing many different experts together and seeking inspiration from nature.

In 2002, ASU committed to establish the institute using its share of Arizona’s voter-approved Technology and Research Initiative Fund. Biodesign would serve as a flagship initiative to advance the university's scientific research and development efforts. Its founding director, Charles Arntzen, helped establish the institute by recruiting a permanent leader as well as faculty from ASU and other institutions.

The institute opened its first building, Biodesign A, in 2004 under the leadership of its former director George Poste. Biodesign challenged the way the university worked, as its structure was based not on departments but on teams of researchers who would come together in centers to solve a problem.

In the two decades following, Biodesign worked to advance the health and economy of its Arizona community by attracting premier scientific talent and high-wage jobs to the state, and spurring innovation that produced economic growth. By 2030, Biodesign’s impact on Arizona’s economy is expected to reach an estimated $265 million annually. 

Today, Biodesign boasts around 1,500 faculty, staff and students, and its physical complex comprises three buildings spanning a total of 540,000 square feet.

“The Biodesign Institute was conceived as a dynamic place where scientists, engineers and moonshot thinkers could work together to better understand and replicate the elegance of nature’s design,” said ASU President Michael Crow. “Over the last two decades, the institute has made major strides in expanding our knowledge of human health, supported Arizona through a global pandemic and moved us closer to finding meaningful solutions to improve the quality of life. It is a shining exemplar of the impact a New American University can achieve.”

“Being part of the development of Biodesign has been particularly gratifying. My research combines physics, chemistry, biology and engineering in ways that would be very difficult in a conventional department environment,” said Stuart Lindsay, reflecting on his 20 years with the institute. Lindsay is a Regents Professor and director of the Biodesign Center for Single Molecule Biophysics. He is also chair of the institute’s 20th anniversary steering committee. “Biodesign and Skysong Innovations have also been very supportive of efforts to commercialize technology from my lab. I doubt I would have had such support elsewhere. I have been fortunate indeed.”

Over its 20-year history, Biodesign has delivered innovative discoveries in areas like personalized medicine, cancer, renewable energy and environmental sustainability, establishing itself as a world-renowned research institute in the process. These discoveries — on top of collaborations with national and state governments, industry and other institutions — led to Biodesign gaining a reputation as a trusted community partner.

Some of its high-impact discoveries and accomplishments from the past two decades include:

“Biodesign is an excellent model of ASU’s approach to solving complex problems,” said Sally C. Morton, executive vice president of Knowledge Enterprise. “Its researchers draw methods from one another’s disciplines, collaborate across labs and look holistically at the problems we face. Over the last 20 years, we’ve proven this approach is a power multiplier that improves science and accelerates discovery.”

The institute has several events planned to mark its anniversary, including an Arntzen Grand Challenges Lecture with biochemist Carolyn Bertozzi as the keynote speaker on Nov. 14, 2024, as well as a scientific symposium on Nov. 15, 2024. More details and registration will be made available on the Biodesign Institute events webpage. Biodesign is also helping former students, staff and researchers reconnect through its new Biodesign Orbital network.

Biodesign’s 20th anniversary celebrations aren’t just reflecting on the past — this 2024 season will also be a time to look forward to new opportunities and discoveries that will propel us toward a healthier future.

Biodesign is building the world’s first compact X-ray free electron laser, paving the way for fundamental scientific discoveries. Innovative treatments for Parkinson’s disease and health issues associated with autism are advancing through the drug development process. New techniques for removing contaminants from water, breaking down plastics and creating green materials will reduce the impacts of human-caused pollution. Smarter cybersecurity methods that take inspiration from the biological immune system will protect national security in an age of rapid technological developments.

While the institute will continue to grow and evolve in the decades to come, it will do so with its timeless vision in mind: to make a lasting impact on society through innovations in health care, sustainability and security.

“As the Biodesign Institute celebrates its 20th anniversary, we look toward a bright future at the forefront of science where we will continue to make a lasting impact on society and the communities that we serve,” said Joshua LaBaer, executive director of the institute. “By leveraging our expertise and expanding capabilities, the institute is well positioned to mobilize exceptional teams who will illuminate the world’s daunting threats and shepherd innovative solutions to them.”

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