New Lawrence laboratory expected to bring millions in additional research dollars from the Department of Defense

KU is working to build a multimillion dollar, high-security clearance laboratory that it hopes will become one of a handful across the country that develops new technology for the U.S. military and others.

According to a KU document and local economic development officials, renovation work is set to begin on a $4 million project to convert vacant space on KU’s West Campus into a National Security Laboratory that will enable KU scientists to concentrate on conducting research for the Department of Defense and other U.S. government agencies.

“This is a big deal for KU and Lawrence,” said G.R. Underwood, president of the Bioscience and Technology Business Center on West Campus.

The National Security Lab will locate in a 7,000 square-foot windowless basement of the BTBC building, 2029 Becker Drive. Underwood said construction on parts of the project is expected to begin in the next few days.

“We were worried about how we were ever going to rent this space because it doesn’t have any windows,” Underwood said. “They looked at it and said, ‘this will be great for security.'”

Local economic development leaders are optimistic the facility also will be great for the Lawrence economy. According to the KU document, the laboratory is expected to have about 30 to 40 employees and an annual payroll of about $12 million by 2021. KU hopes to open the laboratory in the spring of 2018.

A more eye-popping number, though, is the amount of federal research dollars the facility is expected to attract. KU currently does about $1 million a year in research related to the Department of Defense. With the laboratory in place, KU believes it could see that total grow to about $20 million within three years. KU officials have noted that while federal research dollars from institutions like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation are relatively flat, Department of Defense research dollars are growing nationally.

“It makes good sense for KU to to pursue defense-related projects,” according to the KU document, which is a fact sheet distributed to certain members of the community.

If KU is successful in attracting that level of Department of Defense funding, Underwood is confident Lawrence will attract several private companies that want to be close to the laboratory.

“There are very large members of private industry who will want to be near that research,” Underwood said.

Larry McElwain, president and CEO of the Lawrence chamber of commerce, said the laboratory could be a major driver of high-tech business growth in Lawrence for years to come, especially if the laboratory can win a special designation from the Department of Defense.

The KU document confirms a goal of the laboratory is to become a University Affiliated Research Center. The Department of Defense provides that designation to university laboratories where critical research is conducted. Currently, there are only 13 of those laboratories in the country, with many of them at top research universities, including MIT, John Hopkins, Penn State and the University of Texas. Closer to home, the University of Nebraska established a center in 2012 that has gained the designation. It researches technology to combat weapons of mass destruction.

It is a little unclear to me what the mission would be of a KU/Department of Defense Laboratory. The KU document states likely research areas could include “radar, remote sensing, math, unmanned aerial vehicles, signal processing and sensors.”

I’ve heard two particular KU components have played major roles in getting the project to this point. One is the Information and Telecommunications Technology Center that is located on KU’s West Campus. It has been a longtime research center that has done work on some of the first Internet search engines, bioinformatics, radar, radio frequencies and other such subjects.

I’ve also heard that the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets is a player in all of this. KU is the lead agency for seven institutions that conduct research on the melting ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica. Maybe the Department of Defense is taking a keener interest in those melting ice sheets, or perhaps the remote sensing technology that the scientists have developed has military applications. I’m not sure.

I’ve got a call into a KU official to learn more about the project. I’ll let you know when I hear more.

As for the money part of all this, the KU document states the Bioscience and Technology Business Center — which is a joint venture between KU, the city, the county, the chamber and the state — will pay to build the lab. But, BTBC will get a $4 million loan from the KU Center for Research Inc. that will be used to finance the improvements. BTBC will pay off the 20-year loan by charging rent to the KU researchers who use the lab, according to the document.

It is probably not coincidental that while this laboratory project is gaining steam BTBC leaders are becoming more serious about planning an expansion of the BTBC building.

Underwood confirmed that planning work is underway for a phase III of the building. But unlike the previous two stages, the addition likely would not be set up to be an incubator for new and emerging businesses. Instead, it may focus on having space for two or three larger, well-established businesses who want to be close to the the research that is underway at KU. That could be the Defense Department type of research that would occur in this new lab, pharmaceutical research that occurs at the pharmacy school across the street or companies who want to be close to the large engineering school that KU houses.

In the past, expansions of the BTBC building have meant major financial commitments from the city of Lawrence and Douglas County. Underwood stopped short of saying that would be the case this time. He didn’t rule it out, but he did say there is likely more potential for a private partner helping to build the space this time around.

Underwood said there is space at the current BTBC site to house an expansion. No decisions have been made about whether to move forward with such an expansion, but it sounds like those could be coming.