Knowledge, Excellence Cross Paths in Education

Success with collaborations in research efforts prompts universities to broaden the scope of partnerships on campus and off.


By Dennis Boone



Over a span of more than 60 years, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society has thrown several billion dollars into research, its biggest weapon in the war on blood cancers. Louis DeGennaro, the society’s chief mission officer, now has a new weapon: university collaboration.

DeGennaro, from his office in White Plains, N.Y., has been working with the University of Kansas Cancer Center researchers to develop drugs that could be commercialized for treatment of patients with blood cancers—drugs that would otherwise have never been produced by pharmaceutical giants because the potential customer base is too small.

The work with KU, DeGennaro said, has set a new standard for speed and efficiency in moving a drug from concept to clinical trial.

“If we can bring new therapies to patients faster, we put that in the win column,” he said. “We bring the research portfolio, they bring the tools and the technology that need to be applied to advance these projects to the next step. Each contributes something invaluable to the partnership.”

His organization, then, is benefiting from a trend that’s gaining momentum among research universities nationally and in the Kansas City region: forging new alliances with non-academic organizations to leverage their resources and produce outcomes greater than the sum of their parts. The concept of business-university collaboration isn’t new; companies and universities have been working on joint research projects since before World War II, and university research skyrocketed after 1980, when new federal laws allowed campuses to share in the proceeds from commercialization of their work.

What is new is the sharpened focus on results, and selecting partners whose needs—and whose own contributions to the cause—produce the greatest chances for the best outcomes. In many ways, the trend mirrors the internal changes campuses themselves have made to break their colleges, schools and departments out of the long-established silos of knowledge.

“There are probably three driving factors,” behind that on-campus trend, said Betty Drees, dean of the School of Medicine at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “One is the recognition that opportunities for great discovery often comes in merging of two different disciplines, such as the schools of medicine and engineering, or medicine and social work, dentistry and engineering, or law and business,” she said. “When you start taking people from very different backgrounds, the diversity of viewpoints and expertise often triggers some interesting innovations.”

Other motivators, she said, are the need to leverage resources and the efficiencies that come from sharing information, which helps similar lines of research avoid proven dead ends. “Sharing knowledge helps produce this explosion of innovation,” Drees said, because “it makes efforts more efficient by people not being siloed.”

Business Gives Back
Scott Weir, a KU Cancer Center researcher working closely with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society project, said the center’s success to date stems from “a knack for establishing high-performance collaborations and partnerships.”

“We identify partners where we share common goals, visions or missions,” he said. “It’s not about who gets credit or who takes the lead; it’s more focused on outcomes and results.” In that sense, he said, the center was operating more like a well-managed business than an academic institution, and with good reason: The leadership has been focused on bringing on researchers with backgrounds in business settings.

Weir himself worked at Marion Labs—or the site of Marion Labs; he says he had six different employers there in 20 years without relocating from the site—before the cancer center brought him on board six years ago. One of those previous employers was Ewing Kauffman, who taught him a lot about the power of collaboration.

He has worked on more than half a dozen drugs that are now in commercial use, but diffuses credit for those achievements, citing the structure of the research teams at the cancer center. “I’m not a rocket scientist, that’s for sure,” he said. “So it’s clearly not just me, but tens, maybe hundreds of people that touch those drug products. It’s kind of what you do in pharma, where the company will identify a priority and then you wrap multi-disciplinary teams around the mission.”

In his time at the cancer center, administrators have recruited more than 230 years’ worth of drug-development experience, researchers with backgrounds in everything from front-end first discoveries through clinical trials. That, he said, clashes with the classic picture of an academic researcher “someone who holes up in lab and works in isolation or a silo. We’re really trying to break that paradigm, to get folks thinking and working as a team.”

“What’s really helped us, and certainly to get the attention of the folks like the NIH and Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in terms of partnering,” he said, “is the stuff I learned—we learned—growing up at Marion Labs, with Mr. K’s influence and all the best practices. What’s unique is, we’ve brought those best practices into the university.”

That, said Michael Artman, chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at Children’s Mercy Hospitals and Clinics, is no process fad. Rather, it’s a research management approach that’s here to stay. Collaboration, he said, “does demonstrate the direction that medical research in general is going, and that is much more toward team science. The days of individual silos—they’re gone. That’s over. You can’t develop the rich, robust scientific infrastructure and the resources you need if you’re trying to go it alone.”

Artman said true collaboration is possible only with a laser focus on the organizational mission, and that means checking the egos at the door.

“We view our clinical enterprise in much the same way as our research enterprise in that regard,” he said. “We want to make sure every child in our region has access to high-quality pediatric health care,” which requires letting go of turf-protection instincts. “We believe by partnering with colleagues across the state lines, with other communities in our region, with other hospitals in our region, can help develop those networks of care.”

For example, although UMKC is its largest academic partner—many Children’s Mercy physicians are faculty members for UMKC’s medical school—the hospital aligns with KU Hospital to provide support services for pediatric patients there, he said, particularly with child neurology and pediatric cancer.

Focusing Inward
As much as universities, businesses and communities benefit from increased collaboration from the campus outward, there is a push within higher education to explore cross-departmental functions that can help sharpen the focus on organizational missions, educators say.

“When you have people coming onto a project from multiple backgrounds, there’s research into how powerful it is, how that diversity leads to more innovative thinking and better solutions,” Drees said. At UMKC, stability in two high-profile leadership roles—with Chancellor Leo Morton and Provost Gail Hackett—has helped foster a culture of cross-departmental collaboration, she said. “They are both very supportive of collaboration, and we have a group of deans who support and encourage faculty to cooperate across disciplines,” she said. “That’s probably not by accident, because that’s the sort of person being recruited” into leadership roles there.

Relative to many institutions, she said, “I think UMKC demonstrates an exceptional amount of cross-discipline cooperation among faculty. In most universities, you don’t see nearly as much collaboration, even within a school, and certainly not across schools like I see here.”

One of the biggest collaborative ventures she sees emerging now is the push to build community consensus for relocating the School of Performing Arts to Downtown Kansas City, where it could create a new artistic dynamic by affiliating more closely with the new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

“I think that’s a pretty big deal,” Drees said. “There’s a huge amount of community engagement and support for performing arts to even be able to have that kind of conversation.”

And she noted, her office in the School of Medicine is sitting in the middle of one of Kansas City’s most successful collaborative ventures: Hospital Hill, with its academic medical center, pediatric hospital, schools of nursing, pharmacy and dentistry, the county health department and more. “That’s the power of that kind of community engagement that involves the university—the downtown performing arts campus has that same kind of potential.”  

Fostering Business Growth
One example of stepping outside traditional research-based collaborations is the University of Missouri’s partnership with the city of Blue Springs, Missouri and the Blue Springs Economic Development Corporation. Together, they’re proceeding with the development of the Mizzou Center in the Missouri Innovation Park near
Interstate 70 and Adams Dairy Parkway.

The center is expected to enhance the transfer of new technologies to business settings and to boost additional scientific collaboration in the area, serving as a geographic complement to the Kansas Bioscience Park in Olathe.

That site, a product of the Johnson County Research Triangle Initiative, would never have come together with-out the cooperation between the KU, Kansas State and Johnson County Community College, those behind it say.

Its initial success led to calls for more state funding from Jefferson City, to strengthen the life sciences commitment on the Missouri side, which became a reality in 2010. MU chancellor Brady Deaton was on hand in Blue Springs to cut the ribbon on the first phase of the center, saying it demonstrated MU’s dedication to broadening its role as a major economic driver for the Kansas City area. “The tenants of this center will build partnerships between researchers and private industry, develop smoother transitions for technology transfer, create jobs and prepare students for today’s global business climate,” Deaton declared.

The first tenants included representatives from the MU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, plus elements from the offices of research, academic programming, extension, and the college of engineering and education.

In Lawrence, much the same is going on with KU Center for Technology Commercialization, formed to help company start-ups and to provide instruction—for students, faculty and the public alike—in the principles of entrepreneurship.

The non-profit organization, operated by the university’s Center for Research and its Medical Center Research Institute, opened the Bioscience and Technology Business Center in 2010 and is home to 15 tenant companies. Among them are such varied interests as GT Security, a computer software and hardware developer specializing in user authentication/access control systems; HiPer Technology, which designs and manufactures carbon-fiber products like racing wheels for all-terrain vehicles; and Horizon Analog, which is pursuing technologies to suppress impulse noise over high-speed Internet lines, DSL and T1 lines and audio devices.
But collaborations grounded in economic development are not strictly the domain of universities near the metropolitan area. They were the impetus for the founding of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Northwest Missouri State in Maryville, and the early efforts there have already led to start-ups spun off from research at that site.

Perhaps the biggest potential seedbed for collaborative efforts has recently broken ground in Manhattan, Kan., where the Department of Homeland Security is building the $650 million National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility. Operations of that research behemoth will align with K-State’s research programming, and expectations are that companies will flock to Riley County to pursue opportunities as vendors and start-up companies specializing in technologies spun off from NBAF.

Given the amount of agricultural research to be conducted there, companies like Hill’s Pet Nutrition, one of the largest employers in the Topeka area, are expected not just to benefit from new lines of research at NBAF and K-State, but to be engaged in new collaborative ventures that draw on its own research strengths.