The furniture’s on order, the equipment hooked up, the network of labs and offices and support areas sheathed in a shimmering skin of stainless steel.
And now that the $13.9 million Kansas Bioscience Park Venture Accelerator in Olathe is nearing completion — with its first employees expected to move in next month — the Kansas Bioscience Authority’s drive to grow employment through emerging pharmaceuticals, animal science and other technical ventures is looking to add a few more passengers.
Novita Therapeutics, a startup designer and manufacturer of medical devices, already has signed a lease to come aboard, and more than two dozen others are said to be in contact or under consideration for setting up shop north of College Boulevard, less than a mile east of Kansas Highway 7.
“It’s time to launch,” said Gary Micheel, the authority’s facilities project manager.
All eyes on KBA
The countdown comes as unprecedented scrutiny is focused upon the authority, a 7-year-old project to funnel $581.8 million into bolstering the state’s bioscience industry:
• Tom Thornton, the authority’s first and only president and CEO, has resigned, as reports swirl that the Johnson County District Attorney’s Office is conducting an investigation. Last week he took a job with the Cleveland Clinic.
• Legislators are looking into issues of KBA employee compensation and oversight.
• Gov. Sam Brownback has pressed for an independent forensic audit of the authority’s operations.
All that, as the Venture Accelerator prepares to open a few months later than scheduled, at a cost higher than envisioned, and at the gateway of an Olathe campus that — for now, at least — remains absent of what its supporters have both sought and expected: jobs.
“I don’t think they need a $13.9 million building, but it’s within their legal scope and authority to do so,” said state Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Wichita, who had pushed for legislation to force the authority to spend more money on startups and less on efforts at the bioscience campus. “The caveat is: Is it a proper and necessary function of the bioscience authority at this time, to be in that kind of a building project, one that is this extravagant — particularly for a new venture? …
“This is just one more expense that shows there’s a problem with the bioscience authority management.”
But Olathe Mayor Michael Copeland, who in 2006 oversaw the city’s donation of 92 acres of prime land for the KBA park and adjacent satellite campus for Kansas State University, said he was confident that the investment would pay off.
“We first started talking about this partnership in 2004 and saw some great years of economic growth after that,” Copeland said last week. “Everyone thought the economy would continue on. I don’t think anyone forecasted what the economy’s done. …
“But, despite the Great Recession, we have two brand-new buildings coming out of the ground. … The fact that we’re moving forward is quite exciting.”
Accelerating the mission
Indeed, supporters are counting on the Venture Accelerator — and, even closer to College Boulevard, K-State’s new $28 million International Animal Health and Food Safety Institute, home this week to a new Center for Animal Health Innovation — to help speed progress.
While the K-State building is being financed by a one-eighth countywide sales tax approved by Johnson County voters in 2008, and is the cornerstone of the new K-State Innovation Campus, the bioscience authority is using its funds to bankroll the Venture Accelerator and future development in the Kansas Bioscience Park.
The KBA is using an industrial revenue bond for the Venture Accelerator, providing tax advantages and allowing the authority to continue providing money to emerging bioscience companies and research efforts, Micheel said.
If and when the bioscience authority ceases to exist, the building would revert to state ownership. Original legislation calls for it to be finished in 2019. The maximum amount that can be spent is $581.8 million, but the authority’s revenues have been capped at $35 million a year as the state grapples with budget shortfalls, leading to speculation the timeline could be extended.
Dan Watkins, a Lawrence attorney and member of the authority’s board of directors, said responsibilities for the building’s ongoing maintenance and management would be arranged by the time it became necessary.
The bioscience authority is scheduled to move its offices into the building on May 15, departing leased offices in Cedar Creek.
“It’s an investment in the mission of the bioscience authority, and we think it will pay dividends over time,” Watkins said last week.
The total project cost for the Venture Accelerator is $13.9 million, which includes furnishings for offices and labs, plus equipment — including an autoclave — in labs to be used jointly by tenants.
The 38,773-square-foot building’s total construction cost is $10.9 million, or $700,000 more than the original $10.2 million estimate.
In Lawrence, the smaller Bioscience & Technology Business Center on Kansas University’s West Campus provides office and laboratory space. The center covers 21,400 square feet and cost $7.5 million.
KU’s new School of Pharmacy building, dedicated in October, provides 110,000 square feet for offices, labs, classrooms and other spaces. It cost $45 million.
‘A signature building’
Brunk, the legislator from Wichita, said that he was frustrated with the “inconsistency” of bioscience authority leaders who insist on startups meeting strict requirements — including benchmarks, milestones and other indicators — to receive financing, while those same standards seemingly don’t apply to internal operations or projects.
“The way they’re spending money on themselves, to grow themselves, is without any caution,” said Brunk, a broker who works in real estate and with small businesses. “Certainly, we want accountability. But there appears to be no accountability when it comes to spending money on themselves.”
The project — its exterior shape and bent-metal skin designed to resemble a lab’s fume hood — includes 15 laboratory modules, each with adjoining doors to provide scientists and their startups with maximum flexibility to meet their needs, said Michelle Gangel, architectural project manager and vice president for PGAV Architects in Westwood, which designed the building. The firm also designed the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, in Kansas City, Mo.
As companies grow in the Venture Accelerator, they will be able to expand into adjacent labs, already equipped with furnishings and other laboratory basics. Across the hall will be offices — for the KBA, its Heartland BioVentures commercialization operation and the tenant companies themselves.
Throughout the project, the Venture Accelerator will include a variety of features to provide sustainability — a solar hot water system, insulated glazing and abundant daylight among them — while giving the bioscience park an ever-changing look.
Excel Constructors, the project’s Overland Park-based general contractor, notes that “clouds, rain, sun and snow will change the building’s appearance,” as reflected by the exterior of glass and stainless steel.
“It’s a signature building that’s reflecting the high-tech nature of the things going on in and around this park,” Gangel said last week.
Building for the future
The bioscience authority is being financed with income taxes generated from new bioscience jobs, using the money to help create even more jobs. The Kansas Bioscience Park has free land available for bioscience startups and other qualifying operations.
While no deals have materialized to add more buildings to the bioscience park — a planned $40 million project for Fort Dodge Animal Health to use 30 acres of the park fell through in 2009, after the company’s parent was acquired by Wyeth — supporters hope for a bright future.
The Venture Accelerator, they say, is the beginning.
“It is another piece in putting together the infrastructure for a robust bioscience presence in the Midwest — Kansas in particular,” said Watkins, who joined the authority’s board a year ago. “I think we’re pleased with the progress at this point.”
Ongoing commitment to both the K-State Innovation Campus and the Kansas Bioscience Park would reward the people and businesses of Olathe, Johnson County and throughout the region, state and even beyond, said Copeland, who is looking forward to the bioscience authority identifying a strong, innovative leader to succeed Thornton as president and CEO — someone who could provide the visionary approach provided early on by Clay Blair, the authority’s first chairman.
“We need an entrepreneurial type who understands how to make deals work, and to benefit all parties,” Olathe mayor Copeland said last week. “Everybody’s got to win in these deals.”