Animal-health lab to move to KU’s West Campus; Argenta plans to provide 27 jobs within five years

A New Zealand-based company has chosen Lawrence as the site for a research and development center that is expected to employ 27 high-paid scientists to study advancements in animal health.

Officials with Argenta confirmed Tuesday they are finalizing a lease to locate a laboratory in the Bioscience and Technology Business Center on Kansas University’s West Campus.

The average annual salary for the Lawrence employees is expected to be $74,000, with all of the positions making nearly $70,000 or more.

“It is an extremely exciting announcement for the community,” said Beth Johnson, vice president of economic development for the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce. “They are high-quality jobs, and the animal health market has huge potential for us.”

The company is expected to finalize a lease and begin operations in Lawrence by the end of the year. The firm expects to hire four employees in its first year, and plans to hire about five employees each year until it reaches the 27 total.

The company is receiving about $400,000 in incentives from the Kansas Bioscience Authority to install laboratory equipment, and is seeking $10,500 in grant funding from the city and county. Johnson said the current proposal calls for the county to pay $5,500 to the company for training expenses in year one, while the city would pay $2,500 each in years three and four.

Argenta is a 6-year-old firm that does contract drug development work for a variety of companies in the health sciences field. Johnson said originally Lawrence wasn’t even on the company’s list of potential sites. Instead, Manhattan and Columbia, Mo., were both more likely targets because of the presence of university-based veterinary schools. But regional economic development officials were driving company officials through Lawrence while touring other regional sites, and said the company ought to at least look at a new incubator facility that had been built on West Campus.

Johnson said company leaders ended up spending more than two hours touring the facility, and began thinking that a close connection to pharmaceutical researchers at KU may be more beneficial than having a close physical presence to a veterinary school.

Johnson said connecting KU pharmaceutical research with the animal health industry could pay more dividends in the future.

“We’re seeing an increasing number of animal health science companies looking to this region of the country,” Johnson said. “This will help get Lawrence more into that game.”

State and regional economic development leaders also were hailing the decision. Bob Marcusse, president and CEO of the Kansas City Area Development Council, said the announcement brings more “credibility and prestige” to the area’s efforts to attract animal health companies.

Marcusse said that in the last six years, 21 new animal health companies have located in the corridor between Columbia and Manhattan, and the companies have pledged to create more than 1,300 jobs and make about $900 million in capital investments.

The deal also is expected to provide a boost to the West Campus incubator facility. The building now is at about 75 percent occupancy, and leaders of the center have begun planning for an expansion that would double space of the incubator facility, which originally was built with a combination of public funding from the city, the county, KU and the state’s bioscience authority.

City commissioners have budgeted $500,000 in their 2012 budget to serve as seed money for what likely would be a $7 million to $8 million expansion project.

“We’re about four years ahead of where we thought we would be at,” Johnson said of the incubator’s progress. “We thought it would take some time to develop, but it really hasn’t. The market has told us that there is a need for space that allows companies to easily collaborate with the university.”