This paper reports results on a bibliometric case study of the long-term development of research organizations, using an internationally leading biomedical institute as example. Using scientometric concepts, small group theory, organizational ecology, and process-based organizational theory, we developed a life cycle based theoretical model for analyzing long-term development of research groups and institutes. Three bibliometric indicators are proposed for growth, activity profile stability, and focus. With these, the research dynamics of the case institute are described. First, overall output growth matches developments internationally in developmental biology and stem cell research, and, in line with this, journal article output increasingly dominates the institute's activity profile. Second, superposed on the overall growth curve, a stepwise development is observed, consisting of long phases of growth and stabilisation. These steps reflect local conditions and events. Historical sources from the Institutes' archive and interviews with the current staff of the institute suggest that the pattern of life cycles reflects a strong influence of pioneering individuals. But once settled, pioneering directors who remain in function for many years delay adaptation of the institutes' mission to field developments. Furthermore, national science policies on PhD training, and on priority areas have influenced the life cycles, as did merging with other institutes. As in a social science case, also in this case study stabilized local conditions lead to adaptation to research field dynamics in a delayed fashion. In the present case stable output periods lasted at most 15 years, when local impulses led to new growth of research output and thus prevented onset of a lifecycle decline. The continued growth in the larger field both promoted and legitimized these local impulses. © 2014 Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest, Hungary.