Officials cheer $10 million expansion of bioscience incubator at KU

From left, Val Stella, a distinguished professor of pharmaceutical chemistry at the University of Kansas; KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little and Gov. Sam Brownback were part of KU's Bioscience and Technology Business Center's groundbreaking Friday, June 14, 2013, for an expansion that will more than double its capacity.

This rendering shows the plans for the 0 million expansion of the Bioscience and Technology Business Center at Kansas University, as seen from the southwest. The existing portion of the building is the section on the far left.

It was a bit of déjà vu Friday morning for Kansas University Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little.

One of the first things she did after coming to KU in 2009, she remembered, was to stick a shovel into a hillside on the university’s West Campus to mark the groundbreaking for a new business incubator. On Friday, she was there again to do much the same thing.

Since that day less than four years ago, the Bioscience and Technology Business Center at KU has filled up completely with business tenants — three years ahead of schedule. That’s why Gray-Little and other state, city and KU officials were on that hillside again Friday for a groundbreaking ceremony for a new $10 million addition.

“This is just a very short time,” Gray-Little said, “and great progress has been made since then.”

The 30,000-square-foot addition will more than double the space available at the BTBC’s main facility at KU, which is currently about 21,000 square feet. It will provide space for nine to 15 more business tenants in addition to the nine there already, a mix of startups and more established firms. The new spots will be available starting in summer 2014.

It will also provide a home for KU’s Center for Technology Commercialization, plus a laboratory for student entrepreneurs in the KU School of Business.

Gov. Sam Brownback also spoke at the ceremony, lauding the center for filling with companies well ahead of schedule when similar incubators at other universities around the country have struggled to attract tenants. He said the center was a valuable weapon in the state’s “battle” for jobs.

“The real accomplishment here today is that we’re building another building because this one’s full,” Brownback said.

Also there was Doug Cleverly, the founder and managing director of the New Zealand-based animal drug company Argenta. Argenta is a “poster-child tenant” for the BTBC, executive chairman LaVerne Epp said.

Cleverly said Friday that it took some work to convince his company’s board to place the company’s new U.S. laboratory in Kansas.

But he had solid reasons: It would be part of the Kansas-Missouri Animal Health Corridor; he’d be on the same campus as Val Stella, a KU distinguished professor of pharmaceutical chemistry whom Cleverly called a “hero” of his; and he eventually hopes to form a manufacturing collaboration with the nearby KU School of Pharmacy.

The city of Lawrence, too, has high hopes for the facility and the businesses that grow there, said Mayor Mike Dever at the event. Dever said he hoped for some of those businesses to one day build manufacturing operations at the city’s future business park at the site of the former Farmland Industries fertilizer plant.

The city will chip in $1 million toward the cost of the new BTBC addition, as will Douglas County. The KU Endowment Association will pay $5.5 million of the cost, the KU Center for Research will pay $2 million, and the BTBC itself will chip in $500,000. Contributors for the original $7.5 million BTBC facility at KU also included the Kansas Bioscience Authority.

The BTBC, the largest business incubator network in the Midwest, has also added a facility at the KU Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan., and two other Lawrence facilities. Altogether, they have 29 tenant companies that have created 116 jobs and total about $4 million in payroll.