How plans for a $1 billion biotech campus for Utah fell apart

Draper • The pioneering CEO of a Draper company has walked away from high-stakes talks to bring a $1 billion life sciences research campus to Utah’s largest-ever public redevelopment project — on the former state prison site at the Point of Mountain.

Richard Linder, head of a medical-devices startup called Xenter, and a handful of powerful partners lobbied and refined plans for three years to secure development rights on a sizable chunk of the state-owned land along Interstate 15, offering visions of building a large-scale home for the region’s growing biotechnology sector.

Talk of carving a substantial space for the campus within the marque development stretches back to late 2020 — long before officials dubbed their massive remake of the prison site “The Point.” Polished pitches delivered to The Point of the Mountain State Land Authority touted the potential for a billion-dollar research “ecosystem” of glittering towers, advanced laboratories and commercial spaces spanning between 100 and 200 acres on the 600-acre former prison site.

But emails, documents and interviews show negotiations toward making a reality of what was called the X-Pointe Innovations campus, or XPI, have all but collapsed.

Linder and others with XPI have remained tight-lipped and eschewed public comment as the private talks with the state and developers bogged down. The Xenter CEO, a co-founder of the BioUtah trade association, issued a statement recently acknowledging the rift.

[Read a timeline of The Point’s beginnings and this life sciences campus’s apparent end — and about the players who were involved.]

“I have long believed The Point is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity where Utah can build a world-class innovative life science ecosystem,” Linder wrote in an email. “However, I fear The Point is moving in a different direction, and the current leadership lacks the experience in life sciences to fully realize The Point’s potential.

Richard J. Linder, CEO of medical-devices startup Xenter, based in Draper.

“Almost two decades ago, I recommended to Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. the state prison be relocated and the land used to create a life science ecosystem,” he added. “It’s even more important today than it was almost 20 years ago.”

Records obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune reveal that once-lively streams of emails, text exchanges, site tours and one-on-one business meetings involving the principals, the land authority and an army of consultants have slowed to a trickle after a major rebuff around Memorial Day last year.

For their part, officials with the land authority say they remain receptive to resuming negotiations with Xenter’s CEO and hope to see a version of the campus happen.

“The door is still wide open,” said Lowry Snow, co-chair of the land authority. “It’s a good plan, and I think it would fit within my vision of how The Point should be developed.”

“There’s an opportunity here,” added Alan Matheson, the authority’s executive director since 2019, “so we’re still open to ongoing conversations.”

Documents indicate Linder has resisted yielding control over how the campus would unfold to the state and its master developer. He has urged, instead, that a group of nationally known medical researchers, biotech leaders and developers on his own roster of partners guide the project.

Land authority officials and the master developer have balked at the proposed size of the XPI campus and its financing, insisting that the state’s design framework and lean approach to government incentives prevail at The Point.

Matheson and board members have also cited a potential conflict over the inclusion of one of XPI’s partners, Salt Lake City-based Woodbury Corp., a leading regional developer that lost out in a prior state bidding process at The Point.

Written exchanges obtained by The Tribune also point to a series of behind-the-scenes disconnects and allegations of bad-mouthing between some of the campus’s backers and executives with the state’s master developer.

How it began

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Aerial view of the former site of the old Utah State Prison in Draper is pictured on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023.

Xenter’s initial pitch in 2020 and 2021 for large tracts of that valuable real estate in Draper seemed to dazzle members of The Point’s land authority. It was the first major proposal submitted to the board as it grew into its role overseeing redevelopment of the old prison property.

“This certainly looks like ‘the wow factor’ that we’ve wanted when we talk about development of The Point,” Draper Mayor Troy Walker, who sits on the board, said at one of XPI’s first presentations.

Walker said in a recent interview he was unaware Linder and partners were vexed by ongoing negotiations, adding that he believes a deal with XPI is still viable. Linder, he said, “has got no reason to be mad. He just needs to work this.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Draper Mayor Troy Walker speaks as the agreement for the first phase of redevelopment at The Point is signed in Draper on Monday, Nov. 27, 2023.

A life sciences campus also would dovetail with Utah’s goals. The Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity has identified the biotech sector — including medical devices, pharmaceuticals, diagnostics and related technologies — among those the state wants to expand, and with good reason.

A 2021 study by the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute showed employment in the state’s life sciences industry swelled by 7.2% from 2019 to 2020 partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, far exceeding national trends. That spike, the analysis found, gave Utah the highest workforce share of life sciences jobs (1.9%) in the country.

The sector not only offers relatively high-paying positions but also plugs into strengths in the state’s higher education system. At the same time, the design framework for The Point — based on grassroots input as part of years of public planning for the land — calls for economic development and a focus on innovation.

In addition to hosting research and facilities for Xenter, the campus was pitched as a potential game-changing location for top scientists with a firm known as CBSET, a renowned medical research institute outside Boston.

Among them: Massachusetts Institute of Technology-based biotech researcher Robert S. Langer, whom Linder has called “perhaps the world’s smartest human.”

Renderings shown to The Point’s board and other state leaders feature three curved skyscrapers rivaling any in downtown Salt Lake City. They would be filled with cutting-edge labs and offices around a central area called The Nucleus, with green and futuristic grounds served by TRAX light rail.

XPI’s backers also wanted to build a 1,000-room hotel and medical convention center along a new North Porter Rockwell Boulevard and business incubator spaces for fledgling biotech firms. With those elements and a medical innovation hub tied to Utah’s universities, they dangled the prospect of drawing new investors in the state’s life science advances and transforming its economy on a scale comparable to Silicon Slopes.

The XPI plan was also to have its own $150 million investment fund, Linder said in his initial pitches, to be used to recruit and nurture startups in the sector.

The plan progresses

(XPI) Renderings released in 2022 of a southward view of a major life sciences campus once envisioned at Utah’s public redevelopment of its former prison site in Draper.

Land authority members say they sought to craft a fair and publicly transparent way to vet the plans, in light of their magnitude and the state’s then-pending process for picking The Point’s master developer.

“I want to make sure that we’re serving the public,” board member April Cooper said after a pivotal presentation. “This isn’t first-come, first-served.”

Matheson and land authority staffers drafted a four-stage evaluation process for assessing how XPI and similar early proposals would be accepted, screened, refined and then implemented at The Point, with board support required to move through each stage.

XPI teamed with high-powered partners — including prominent real estate broker Brandon Fugal, head of Colliers International in Salt Lake City, and principals with Woodbury Corp. — to propel the idea.

They eventually poured more than $1 million, according to documents, into hiring architects, planners and consultants to polish and push XPI.

The partnership advanced its plans and business model through the land authority’s first three stages, in many months of painstaking back-and-forths among Matheson, the state’s consultants and XPI’s experts, including Salt Lake City’s FFKR Architects.

Documents show they wrangled over size and how the campus might be broken into phases; architectural styles; building locations; who would control and market new office spaces; retail outlets; clashing approaches to parking; and how XPI would mesh its development with other key features at The Point, including transit, open spaces and a Jordan River trail.

Linder texted Matheson in early 2022 that one of the land authority’s chief consultants “keeps trying to kill this.”

“I want to be clear,” Matheson replied in one of hundreds of text exchanges between the two. “No one on our team is trying to kill your project. In fact, we’re avid supporters.”

Despite that enthusiasm, land authority members and staffers consistently voiced concerns about the campus’s size, which mushroomed from 100 acres to 150 acres and then 200 acres as the proposal advanced — about a third of all the land to be cleared by demolishing the prison.

(XPI) A map released in 2022 showing how a major life sciences campus once envisioned at Utah’s public redevelopment of its former prison site in Draper, displaying how it might fit with the rest of the development.

Emails show Linder has insisted the campus needs land commitments from the state on that scale to flourish.

“I continue to have concerns that XPI is being pressured behind the scenes by developers who want to reduce the amount of space or acreage that is needed to ensure a successful life science ecosystem,” he texted to Matheson in March 2022. “My hope is we can ensure that proper space is provided and set aside for growth.”

Enter the master developer

In midsummer 2022, officials over The Point reached a crucial milestone. They announced they had vetted top bidders and selected a consortium of three companies to lead work and act as a master developer on the first, 100-acre phase located at the heart of the state-owned site.

The team is made up of Lincoln Property Co., headquartered in Dallas; Colmena Group, based in Salt Lake City; and Wadsworth Development Group in Draper.

In addition to using $160 million drawn from a state revolving loan fund to build infrastructure for The Point’s debut phase — roads, sewer and water lines and internet fiber — the consortium, now known as The Point Partners, will also help secure up to $2.3 billion in development and investments at the site on behalf of taxpayers.

The chosen team, said the land authority at the time, stood out for its proven record on public-private partnerships and its “ability to maximize the public’s return on investment.”

(The Point of the Mountain State Land Authority) A rendering of a River-to Range Courtyard that is to be part of the first phase of The Point redevelopment in Draper.

Lincoln Property also brought experience in life sciences facilities across the U.S., including in hot spots such as Boston, Raleigh-Durham, N.C., and along the West Coast.

Once the master developer got that nod, records show, the land authority embarked on nearly 18 months of negotiations with the three companies to reach a detailed development agreement.

State officials also started urging XPI to channel its efforts directly through the master developer instead of working with land authority staffers.

Somewhere in that window, emails indicate, the ongoing talks begin to falter.

In March 2023, documents show Linder sought personal meetings with Gov. Spencer Cox, BioUtah officials and the Draper mayor to raise concerns, he wrote, that the biotech destiny and mission of The Point were in danger from the commercial approach of the master developer, then known as IPP.

“With a land developer like IPP determining where to steer, place and grow life sciences in Utah,” Linder wrote in a March 21, 2023, text to Matheson, “we have digressed, gone backwards and sacrificed our best land asset for speculative real estate development.”

The CEO demanded the master developer disclose key business strategies and “how it plans to build and create jobs.” He urged that all work at The Point be halted pending “intensified” public scrutiny, including by state legislators and leaders in the industry.

“This should not be done inside a bubble,” Linder wrote, “but rather with public oversight to ensure one group’s agenda is not being satisfied, namely IPP.”

Bogged down in disputes

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Alan Matheson, Lance Bullen, Kip Wadsworth and Patrick Gilligan sign the agreement for the first phase of redevelopment at The Point in Draper on Monday, Nov. 27, 2023.

In hopes of remedying the brewing discord, Matheson arranged a meeting for the day after Memorial Day to bring both sides together with land authority staffers and board members, although some invitees noted that traveling near the holiday was costly and represented a family hardship.

The meeting was to focus on ironing out differences between campus backers and the master developer over a confidentiality pact. On paper, it protected their separate business interests and proprietary information in their plans, but the contract also represented a sense of collaboration and trust between the groups.

After a flurry of emails that morning, Linder canceled minutes before the meeting started. He cited concerns later about the agreement’s confidentiality clauses, although some participants still went ahead.

“Let’s skip the meeting today,” Linder wrote that morning. “We appreciate the opportunity, but have significant concerns about confidential subject matter.”

The event proved a kind of breaking point.

“Your last-minute decision not to participate prevented an opportunity for productive conversation,” Matheson emailed Linder a few days later, “and was deeply frustrating to our representatives.”

Disagreements over control of the life science campus build-out also seemed to widen further. In a stern June 23, 2023, letter to the land authority, Linder insisted it was “a clear requirement” the campus have a builder with “subject-matter expertise and industry-relevant knowledge.”

“Prior experience in constructing buildings,” he wrote, “is not enough.”

In July, Matheson again wrote Linder and his partners, saying that “multiple sources have told us that XPI has repeatedly denigrated [the master developer] and others associated with The Point, calling into question our competence and integrity.”

Several channels of communication among the various business parties, according to emails, texts and documents, then started to fall quiet.

In August, the land authority board issued a formal statement saying that it was switching gears — and withdrawing from its four-stage vetting process. It urged XPI to instead reignite talks with the master developer — or reshape its proposal as a “subcampus” and start a new review.

What began as “a Xenter headquarters and CBSET campus,” the board wrote, had evolved “into essentially an independent development phase” under the control XPI’s developers “with speculative office buildings to be leased by members of your team.”

The statement also disputed assertions that the land authority lacked expertise in life sciences to build a significant presence at The Point. That task, according to the authority’s board, falls to the Utah System of Higher Education, or USHE, the state agency that lawmakers have charged with organizing an innovation anchor at the development.

USHE, the board wrote, “has made great strides, including organizing key leaders in Utah’s biotech, higher education, venture capital and other communities to advance the state’s life sciences vision.” Rather than proceeding alone, the letter concluded, XPI would have to participate through USHE to be part of the state’s life science strategy at The Point.

Emails suggest this dispute over who knows best how to develop life sciences to the highest potential at The Point remains a major sticking point.

The land authority also alluded to financial differences, saying that, “except in extraordinary circumstances,” it was not inclined “to provide financial, land or other incentives for entities to locate at The Point.”

Officials over The Point are now exploring the option of a life sciences presence built instead by the master developer. Emails indicate that Linder and his partners, meanwhile, are discussing taking their venture to Vineyard — or another state.

Other stumbling blocks

Patrick Gilligan, executive vice president at Lincoln Property, told The Tribune the master developer team continues to be open to negotiating with XPI. “It’s just we haven’t heard anything,” he said, “for quite some time now.”

Gilligan denied assertions that his team sought to thwart talks to fit the life sciences campus into The Point but said the main challenge remained the amount of land XPI wanted.

“We couldn’t really connect the dots on why this needed to be such a large campus,” he said, “for a business that was still pretty much a startup.”

According to Matheson, as the XPI proposal advanced, its proponents “very quickly said they’d like 150 to 200 acres.”

“That’s more than [all of] phase one,” he said.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Alan Matheson speaks as the agreement for the first phase of redevelopment at The Point is signed in Draper on Monday, Nov. 27, 2023.

Gilligan said his developer colleagues also “were scratching our heads as to why this had to be its own isolated ecosystem.” National and global trends, he explained, indicate that mixed-use developments such as The Point work better as communities with a more integrated approach among their components.

Matheson added that the land authority also raised red flags over Linder’s partnership with Woodbury Corp., which had sought to be The Point’s master developer and been eliminated in the state bidding process.

“They’re a great company, highly respected,” said Matheson. But to now let Woodbury develop a major portion of The Point as XPI’s partner in competition with the state’s master developer after previously being ruled out, he said, would be unfair.

“We went through a very extensive process that was challenging and difficult,” Matheson said of the state’s selection. “You let somebody else in on an easier path, that’s a problem. It goes back to integrity and fairness.”

Officials at Woodbury Corp. did not respond to requests for comment.

“What if we had two master developers on the same site?” Matheson said. “Competition among projects is good. Competition within a project is problematic.”

According to Snow, finances have emerged as an impediment to negotiations, given the land authority’s legal obligation to redevelop The Point as a public asset.

“It’s too risky,” Snow said of XPI’s latest proposal. Its backers “are asking for a significant commitment of some extremely valuable land. And I was not going to go out on a limb and say I liked this so much that I think we have to take the risk.”

“This is a rigorous process,” he added, “because of our duty to the citizens.”

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

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