KU, other Kansas research universities aiming to help create thousands of jobs with new eco devo strategies

photo by: Chris Conde

The World War II Memorial Campanile on the University of Kansas campus is pictured on Jan. 19, 2022.

A few sentences in Gov. Laura Kelly’s proposed budget could mean hundreds of millions of dollars in new research and development funds to Kansas universities.

The provision hasn’t attracted as much attention as Kelly’s other higher education proposals — which would add roughly $100 million of state funding to higher education — because the proposal actually shows up in the Kansas Department of Commerce’s proposed budget rather than in the universities’ budgets.

That’s because the initiatives — a $195 million University Grant Funding Project and a $10 million Economic Development Grants for Higher Education program — are designed to use universities to help attract businesses and new investments to the state.

On Wednesday, the state’s three largest research universities were touting multiyear plans to the Kansas Board of Regents about how they have projects in the works that they believe will add thousands of jobs to Kansas and billions of dollars in new investments.

The economic development strategies have been under development long before Kelly announced her recommended budget earlier this month, but the governor’s proposal gives the ideas a new sense of urgency, Regents were told.

“In my opinion, this is a once-in-a-career shot,” John Tomblin, senior vice president for industry and defense programs at Wichita State University, said of the potential infusion of state funding. “We thought this would be coming and we think it is right for Kansas. Now, we just can’t blow it.”

Kelly, a Democrat up for reelection, must still get her recommended budget through the Republican-controlled Legislature. But higher education officials have been expressing some optimism that her proposals for the universities might be less likely to spark partisan clashes than other parts of her recommended budget.

At Wednesday’s Regents meetings, universities did their part to grease the budgetary wheels by sharing lots of bold predictions about the type of economic activity university projects can spur. Here’s a look at some key aspects of the strategic plans presented by the University of Kansas, Kansas State and Wichita State.


Leaders at the University of Kansas shared details about their economic development strategy for the first time at Wednesday’s Regents meeting. The plan focuses on three areas where KU believes its research activities give the university a competitive advantage: research on safety and security, with a particular emphasis on cybersecurity; research on molecules that can be used to create new medicines, which includes much work happening at KU Cancer Center at the School of Medicine; and research on the Earth, energy and environment, which includes multiple initiatives related to sustainability.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

A screenshot of a rendering shared with the Kansas Board of Regents shows how KU Innovation Park near Iowa Street and Clinton Parkway might look in the future. The project would include a mix of research and office space for KU and private companies, and also would include housing and commercial development. The rendering seemingly has the streets mislabeled. The street labeled 23rd Street appears to be Iowa Street, while the other street would be Clinton Parkway.

A big part of KU’s plan, however, involved an element that university leaders have been talking about for several months now — Innovation Park, which is KU’s partnership with KU Endowment to turn large parts of West Campus into a research park that will attract not only private companies but also new housing and other commercial development to serve people who would live and work at the park.

As previously reported, the project largely would be north and west of the Clinton Parkway and Iowa Street intersection, and would take over much of the university’s current park-and-ride lot. The center of the development would be the business incubator formerly known as the Bioscience and Technology Business Center at 2029 Becker Drive. That facility, now known as KU Innovation Park, is undergoing an expansion that is expected to be completed in the spring.

KU leaders on Wednesday provided some new updates on the evolving project. LaVerne Epp, executive chair of the KU Innovation Park project, said KU believes the project will produce 2,500 jobs and $271 million in direct wages for Lawrence and the surrounding area over the next 15 years.

He’s estimating that the research components of the development will involve about $400 million in investments, while the more commercial aspects of the project — currently dubbed The Crossing at KU Innovation Park — may require another $200 million in funding from KU Endowment.

“It is pretty exciting what we already have created on West Campus, and where we are going absolutely will be transformative,” Dave Cook, vice chancellor for public affairs and economic development, told the Regents.

A central idea behind the facility is that there are many companies who want to have easy access to KU research and students. Allowing them to have a presence on a part of the university campus would create new opportunities, and creating new commercial and living spaces may draw a larger workforce to the area.

But, for KU, it also is about attracting new students during a time when enrollment numbers at KU and other universities across the country have struggled to grow. Cook said showing potential students KU Innovation Park and the number of start-up companies that are housed there could be a powerful recruiting tool.

The project will need some approvals from Lawrence City Hall. Regents were told the project continues to move forward well, and that KU is pursuing various federal grant opportunities to help cover the costs of some of the earlier phases of the project. Regents were told to expect more visible signs of the project to emerge on West Campus this summer.

Kansas State

Leaders at Kansas State are projecting they will produce 3,000 jobs and $3 billion in investment over the next 10 years with projects that focus on food security, research into pathogens, and other efforts that will dovetail with the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility that is under construction by the federal government in Manhattan.

Regents were told KSU expects to benefit greatly from the heightened awareness COVID has created about the havoc pathogens can wreak on the world. Researchers at its veterinary school are generating new research grants related to a variety of pathogens that could infect livestock and other parts of the food chain.

Regents also were told that Manhattan is a strong finalist for two major economic development projects — one with 100 new jobs at about $120,000 per year and another with 500 jobs at nearly $100,000 a year — that would capitalize off of research at KSU and the new biodefense facility.

Kansas State is in the process of developing a new district around the biodefense facility. That district would include space for private companies and also a new agriculture innovation center.

Wichita State

Regents were briefed on the progress WSU is making on its own Innovation Campus, which is up and running and hosting a multitude of aviation-related businesses. The campus, however, is expanding into a new arena with the construction of a new home for the National Institute for Research and Digital Transformation. That center is helping the aviation industry, the military, health care companies and others transition over to new types of digital technology.

The university’s economic development plan, though, continues to heavily focus on aviation. The industry estimates about 40,000 new aircraft will need to be built over the next 20 years.

Wichita State is estimating that its economic development efforts will result in 5,000 jobs and $2.5 billion in new investment in the state over the next 10 years.


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