Plans moving forward for new $1M high-tech, small-scale manufacturing plant on KU’s West Campus

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

KU Innovation Park, a building that houses offices and lab space for start-ups and other firms wanting to be near KU students and researchers, is pictured on Jan. 20, 2022.

The University of Kansas has received a nearly $1 million federal grant to build a small scale manufacturing facility that will help start-up drug firms and other biotech companies create critical, early-stage batches of their products.

KU announced on Friday that the university has received a $958,000 grant from the U.S. Small Business Administration to create a specialized type of facility known as a Good Manufacturing Practice pilot plant. The approximately 700 square-foot facility will be located inside one of the incubator buildings at KU Innovation Park, which is on West Campus.

The Journal-World reported in April that U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, had pushed the funding request through Congress, but it wasn’t until this week that KU leaders received actual notice that the funding indeed would be coming to the university.

A GMP facility, as they are commonly known, is built to certain standards so that companies can use the facility to manufacture highly sensitive types of biomedical products. For example, the facility would allow a startup drug company to manufacture small batches of a product that could be used in the human trial phase of drug development.

Having such a facility in Lawrence is expected to be a key tool in recruiting startup drug firms to locate in the city, and particularly on KU’s West Campus.

“Lab facilities are generally expensive to build and maintain, but GMP facilities are especially costly,” Mike Smithyman, director of operations for KU Innovation Park, said in a release. “They require higher standards and are only used intermittently within each trial, making it prohibitively expensive for small and early-stage companies to develop their own.”

The federal grant is the latest development for KU Innovation Park, which is one of the university’s more active strategic initiatives. KU is working to create a complex of research and office buildings that will house both faculty and private companies that want to benefit from KU-led research.

Last month, KU opened the latest building in the complex, a $24 million mix of laboratory and office space, just west of the KU School of Pharmacy building. The new building is expected to house about a dozen technology companies that have grown from the startup phase and are large enough that they need to move out of the KU incubator building, which is located next door.

The new GMP pilot plant will be located in the incubator building. A timeline for constructing the new pilot plant is still being developed, but a spokeswoman with KU Innovation Park told me that the $958,000 grant is enough to both construct and equip the new facility. Companies that use the space will pay a fee to do so, which will fund the facilities operations.

KU anticipates that the new facility will create 10 new jobs over the next four years and that the facility will be used to train seven to 15 new lab technicians each year. That training is expected to be an important part of the project because it will increase the number of qualified employees for companies looking to locate in the area.

KU leaders are continuing to wait for word on a much larger round of grant funding that could significantly speed development of KU Innovation Park. Innovation Park has applied for a $50.8 million grant through the state of Kansas’ SPARK program, which is funded through federal pandemic relief funds. Word on funding awards for those SPARK programs has been slow to develop, though. KU leaders previously had said they hoped to receive word this summer, but the governor indicated last month that the process for awarding those funds had been delayed.

That grant would help fund a pair of $30 million research and office buildings. One would house the Kansas National Security Innovation Center, which would focus on research related to cybersecurity and other innovations that could be used by the homeland security or defense industries. The other would house the Kansas Bio-Innovation & Sustainability Center, which would focus on research related to green energy and a host of environmental issues, among other topics.

In addition to those two buildings, KU leaders have said they envision about 10 new buildings over the next 15 years that would provide 800,000 square feet of research, laboratory and office space. Additionally, KU Endowment — which owns much of the property on West Campus — has concept plans that show about 75,000 square feet of retail development and about 300 living units being constructed on or near West Campus as part of a plan to make Innovation Park more of a live, work and play destination.

It is far from certain that KU will receive the $50 million SPARK grant from the state. But it is fair to say that there has been a big increase in the availability of economic development-related grant money for universities due to federal pandemic recovery dollars.

Wichita State University already is benefiting from that in a big way. The news may have flown under the radar in the Lawrence area, but WSU won a big federal grant last week from the Economic Development Administration.

Wichita State received a $51.4 million grant to build, staff and support a new aviation research and training center that is designed to produce a new crop of high-tech workers that can build the next generation of U.S. aircraft.

It is the biggest such economic development grant WSU has ever received. The university and its partners in southern Kansas were one of only 21 national winners in American Rescue Plan Build Back Better Regional Challenge.

WSU leaders next week are seeking approval from the Kansas Board of Regents to begin the construction process for a new 85,000 square-foot building that would house a new “technology and innovation building” on the WSU campus as part of the aviation project. Plans call for the building to house six research labs with a heavy emphasis on robotics, automation and digital manufacturing, according to information provided to the Regents. WSU hopes to have the facility operational in the summer of 2025.


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