Research Central

Kansas City's Life Sciences Growth Marches On

By Dennis Boone

It’s a phrase fraught with possibilities for exaggeration, but Wayne Carter believes that it reflects what’s happening across the landscape of life-sciences growth in the Kansas City region: exponential growth.

“We literally see almost exponential growth, not just linear growth” in the region’s life-sciences ecosystem in recent years. — Wayne Carter, CEO, Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute

Carter is the CEO of the Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute, which conducts a triennial census of companies working in research or manufacturing related to human, animal and plant sciences. The latest update of that survey, he says, is evidence that the region’s push to assert its position in key life-science niches is paying off with more companies, more innovation, and more job growth in those fields. 

“We literally see almost exponential growth, not just linear growth,” he says. That growth has helped produce a roughly 20 percent increase in employment in those sectors over the previous three years. But what really excites Carter are the possibilities for consolidating those gains and building on them.

And on that score, a great deal is unfolding, as well.

The game-changing development in regional research capability is still more than three years over the horizon, but has clearly taken shape in Manahttan, Kan.: The $1.25 billion National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility adjacent to the Kansas State University campus. The central utility plant was essentially completed in late 2015, and construction of the main research building is under way, with a projected completion of 2020.

After two to three additional years of site-testing for security compliance and ramp-up, the site is expected to go operational. When it does, experts in the field say, that the site will become the Silicon Valley for biodefense, cementing the region as the nation’s center for animal health, bioscience and food-safety research.

It will be the linchpin for far more growth in those fields, says Antonio Soave, Kansas Secretary of Commerce. “NBAF creates the possibility for a natural economic-
development clustering effect,” Soave said. “That effect is a strategic component of economic development, and analogous to what’s been done in Wichita with aviation.

Twenty-five years ago, the North American Free Trade Agreement laid the groundwork to turn I-35 into the nation’s commercial aorta, and now, “the same thing can continue to happen along the I-70 corridor in life sciences,” Soave said.

Although he wasn’t at liberty to discuss specific companies considering relocation or expansion of operations in Kansas, “what I can tell you is we’re dealing with quite a few potential companies coming out of Asia that understand the strategic importance and significance of being in an area that is pro-life sciences,” Soave said. “And it’s important to understand that we have the key components here.”

NBAF will be one, he said, but another huge factor is the University of Kansas Medical Center, home to both the largest hospital in the Kansas City region, the leading cancer research center, and the KU School of Medicine. A great deal of research is taking place on that campus abutting the state line, and the potential for building on it is vast.

In terms of successful economic development, Soave said, “strategically, you look at natural synergies, like NBAF and the KU Medical Center. Not everybody realizes it, but it’s a leader nationally in non-embryonic stem-cell research. We want to take those and expand on them strategically, purposefully and with direction.”

Other building blocks, Carter says, are initiatives like the Path to 2025, a strategic vision that lays out goals for building on the region’s strengths in animal health (manufacturing and research), cancer re-search and care, neuroscience and outcomes research, and building on the presence of Cerner Corp. as a global leader in the field, healthcare information technology.

To get there, he emphasizes the region must capitalize on four drivers: work-force development, capital formation, collaboration and marketing/messaging. The first of those, however, could be a challenge. Carter said  that “work-force development is not only a weakness, but a threat.” If the region can’t do more to deepen the pool of workers qualified to fill those potential new jobs, the situation will resolve itself with stagnation: Companies won’t expand into the region without that talent.

One solution to that is the work being done by KC Rising, a consortium of interested companies and organizations exploring strategies to address work-force needs. The chairs of that effort, now wrapping up its second year, are Doug Girod, KU’s vice chancellor overseeing the medical center, and former HNTB infrastructure CEO Scott Smith. KC Rising’s goal, by 2025, is to see that this region is in the top 10 of peer metro areas in the numbers of quality jobs, gross metropolitan product, and median household income.

Among the other regional successes that Carter cites is Children’s Mercy Kansas City, which has raised its research profile in recent years by conducting more than 20 new early-phase clinical investigations covering pediatric cancer, diabetes and infectious diseases. And the hospital system says the focus on growth has made Children’s Mercy the largest pediatric clinical pharmacology program in North America. 

Its research initiatives include work on predictors of foreign-body aspiration in infants and children, juvenile-arthritis treatment, programming genes to destroy cancer cells, using hormones to reverse kidney failure, improving lung function in newborns, and explorations of the body’s response to histamine.

More broadly, Carter also points to emerging opportunities in this region following Bayer’s $66 billion acquisition of St. Louis-based Monsanto, and emergence of the One Health initiative in St. Louis, to leverage regional assets in human, animal and environmental health.

The Kansas City region could record another milestone in June if the National Cancer Institute grants comprehensive cancer-center status to the University of Kansas Cancer Center. The center gained the first level of NCI recognition in 2012, but the next stage, officials say, will further seal the region’s place in the nation’s network of cancer-research facilities.

“Achieving NCI designation was just the first step in our journey toward becoming one of the country’s premier cancer centers,” said Roy Jensen, director of the KU Cancer Center. Among other requirements, the higher-level designation goes to centers that have demonstrated additional depth and breadth of research in four key areas—basic laboratory, clinical, prevention control and population-based research. 

While growth is evident, it hasn’t been entirely linear. In 2014, the region lost an opportunity for a stronger research presence by the University of Missouri when it announced that it was withdrawing from a proposed innovation park in Blue Springs. The prospect of MU’s presence as the anchor tenant in the Missouri Innovation Park had officials in eastern Jackson County confident that its focus on science and technology might attract dozens of companies to the area. Still, Carter points out, Mizzou remains a key cog in the engine of growth with a large research presence.

A little more than a year later, officials in Kansas announced that the state’s experiment with public venture-capital funding was ending with the planned sale of the Kansas Bioscience Authority. Created in 2004, it was seen as a way to jumpstart life sciences growth with an overall investment of more than $400 million from the state over a 10-year period. Instead, public contributions were scaled back, eventually topping out at $232 million.

In December, that experiment came to its official end with the KBA’s portfolio was sold to Origami Capital Partners of Chicago for $14 million.

The experience wasn’t entirely negative, Soave said: $150 million of it yielded KBA grants that helped build an infrastructure and produce workers with skills that can be adopted by new life-sciences coming to the state. And KBA’s involvement, Carter said, played an integral role in securing the NBAF facility, changing the face of regional life-sciences well into the future.