Approximately four years ago, several Kansas legislators, primarily Sen. Nick Jordan of Shawnee and Rep. Kenny Wilk of Lansing, focused on what could be done to help Kansas be a strong competitor in attracting and nurturing bioscience ventures.
Biosciences, it was said, was an emerging field that could be compared to the computer era years earlier. Those championing bioscience industry and research said it would grow into an important, giant field and would play a significant role in the economic development of this country.
Jordan and Wilk put together a plan to create an "authority," not a normal state agency with its high level of bureaucracy. It was charged with "causing Kansas to be the most desirable state in which to conduct, facilitate, support, fund and perform bioscience research, development and commercialization, to make Kansas a national leader in bioscience, to create new jobs, foster economic growth, advance scientific knowledge and improve the quality of life for the citizens of the state of Kansas."
It was to be a nonpolitical authority, free of any control from the governor's office, an organization with a diverse board of directors committed to performing in a manner that would earn the respect of state legislators who formed and approved the authority.
For almost three years, the Kansas Bioscience Authority directors did just what they were supposed to do. They generated interest and enthusiasm in biosciences, they helped expand existing Kansas companies engaged in bioscience projects, they identified and recruited companies to move to Kansas and they encouraged entrepreneurs.
It was a very successful operation, good for Kansas and its residents.
The only trouble was that it was more successful than some had anticipated. Most everyone said when the KBA was created that it was a good, noble venture, but many of those complimentary of the authority had reservations about just how effective it would be.
Within a short time, however, the KBA started delivering on its mission. The first concrete payoff was with Prescription Solutions, a firm that moved from California to Overland Park with an original work force of 850, which now totals about 1,800. Other successes included Hospira in McPherson, American Ingredients in Lenexa, Oncimmune, Quintiles and Identigen.
Within a short time, a promising entrepreneur in Sterling came to the attention of Clay Blair, chairman of the authority. The Sterling inventor needed money for some additional laboratory equipment and incentives to help build a facility for an expanded work force. The business, Jacam Chemical, also has been a success with more than 100 employees.
Apparently, the growing success of the KBA surprised some, and some high-profile individuals in Kansas decided they had better pay more attention to the group and perhaps tie their own selfish political interests to the effort.
The number of Kansas jobs created by the KBA, with the good help of the Kansas Department of Commerce and various city and county officials, continued to grow. Missouri officials woke up to the success and potential of the KBA and coveted the revenue it might generate. Kansas University officials also saw the projected $500 million to $600 million the effort might generate and wanted BIG hunks of this money for their cancer center efforts at the KU Medical Center.
A lot of people had their hands out, but Blair and the authority directors tried to make sure any allocations of KBA funds were true to the stated mission and in the best interests of Kansas, not an effort to help other in-state or out-of-state organizations, friends and institutions. Kansas companies and Kansas employees were providing funds to the authority, and KBA officials wanted to make sure these funds were used to help the state and create jobs.
About two years into the life of KBA, raw politics and selfish interests started to enter the scene in the manner directors were appointed to the board. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius wanted to place her stamp and influence on the board. Other agencies such as the Kansas Technology Enterprise Corp. didn't like to see KBA moving into the spotlight, and they wanted some of the money.
KBA paid KTEC more than $325,000 to help organize the authority's operations because it was started from scratch. It is reported KTEC paid its own chief executive approximately $100,000 as a bonus for his efforts and the business he brought to KTEC.
Egos and self-interests started to play a powerful role in an internal, behind-the-scenes effort to try to clip the wings and cast suspicion on KBA.
When Olathe city officials indicated they wanted to give approximately 100 acres to KBA, which would give about 40 of those acres to Kansas State University to develop a bioscience-related industrial and research park, an ugly effort was launched by some very close to KU to derail the project.
Blair was told by a well-placed individual that if the Olathe plan were to come to fruition, there would be hell to pay. The threat didn't stop Blair and the KSU and Olathe officials who had the dream and vision for the park from developing specific plans and timetables.
Several weeks ago, Olathe City Council members gave their unanimous approval to the project. KSU officials also approved the plan. All that is needed is for KBA directors to give their OK. There is likely to be a major company expressing interest in the Olathe-KSU park, and Tom Thornton, the recently named president of KBA, will try to take credit for this development, but it was Blair who made the original contact.
KU officials do not like having the KSU flag planted this close to Mount Oread. Although no senior KU people publicly opposed the research campus, several Johnson County minions did all they could to stall or halt the effort.
During the past six months, many false claims were made about Blair and his leadership of the KBA. The governor has entered the picture through those she appointed or directed others to appoint. Former Democratic Gov. John Carlin was added to the board, joining former Democratic Congressman Dan Glickman. Added to these was Ed McKechnie, a former Democratic state legislator from Pittsburg. The newest director is the hastily appointed Angela Kreps of Kansas Bio. The Democratic, anti-Blair directors will vote however Sebelius wishes and they are likely to be joined by Kreps and holdover director Sandra Lawrence to seize control of the KBA's actions and policies.
Thornton cannot vote, but he can influence and poison the thinking of board members.
Unfortunately, the dream that helped create the KBA has been shattered in just three years, shattered not because of any actions or policies of Blair, the executive committee or the overall board, but because of jealousy, politics, egos, deceit, falsehood and the success of Blair and the KBA.
It is obvious Thornton does not like to share the spotlight with Blair. He tried to undermine Blair and claim that if he continued as KBA chairman, federal Homeland Security officials, as well as Sen. Pat Roberts, would pull back from their efforts to get the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in either Manhattan or Leavenworth.
This writer, a KBA board member, was told that if Blair was not encouraged to resign, Kansas would not make it into the finals for the NBAF facility. Thornton is an able individual with considerable experience in the Washington, D.C., game of lobbying and back-stabbing.
If Kansas does not make it into the finals, it will be said this was due to Blair's actions and policies, while if it does get into the finals, it will be because of Thornton's leadership.
It's a mean, nasty game.
The dumping of Blair - he actually resigned, but he was not going to be reappointed - has created great anger among many state legislators. They are angry because they worry that KBA funds now will be handed out for reasons other than what is in the best interest of Kansas. They are angry because of what they believe were inappropriate actions by people working on behalf of KU, such as David Adkins, a former state senator who served in the Legislature with McKechnie and now works for Barbara Atkinson at the KU Medical Center. It is interesting that McKechnie had been quick to criticize Blair and the board for a lack of transparency before he ever attended a meeting. Adkins' criticisms bear about as much validity as those of his friend McKechnie.
What has happened is not good for the state of Kansas, not good for the KBA and not good for KU.
Blair has been accused of a conflict of interest and ethical lapses. As has been noted in numerous news stories, all of Blair's actions were approved by the KBA's executive committee or the entire board. He did not do anything by which he personally profited. He suggested hiring consultants or professionals he knew and had used in his own development projects because he knew they would get the job done on time and within the budget.
He and his staff were extremely careful in salaries and office expenses. In fact, their expenses pale by comparison to the costs Thornton is racking up.
In most any venture, particularly a new innovative effort such as what was envisioned by Jordan and Wilk, there are bound to be some mistakes, or, if not mistakes, actions that those at the start of such an effort might like to do differently.
This probably is the case with KBA, but nothing was done deliberately to break any laws or not perform in a manner that earned the respect of state legislators and residents. There was no deliberate conflict of interest. If there was, then all members of the board and executive committee share the blame because they all approved every action by Blair.
What a shame to see KBA crippled by selfish, political interests and hungry egos.