August 18, 2014

Midwest Research Institute, now MRIGlobal, has been making its mark for 70 years

From being closely involved in Kansas City’s civic life in its earlier years, MRIGlobal necessarily turned inward to protect confidential contracts, and outward, as it expanded into work around the country and the world.

From its founding in 1944, Midwest Research Institute was a dominant player in Kansas City’s civic life. Back then, a small group of influential business leaders, including J.C. Nichols, saw a need to keep the area’s scientific population working in the city after World War II-related work ended.

Initially, they didn’t plan to create an independent, applied research institute, but after fact-finding visits to the Battelle, Mellon and Armour research institutes elsewhere in the country, founders decided to start one of their own.

There was one sticking point: Those existing institutes had hefty endowments. The Kansas City founders scraped together an initial development fund of just half a million dollars.

That modest beginning was enough. The institute’s early growth was fueled by development of the nearby Linda Hall Library, a bequest that fortuitously chose to finance a scientific library instead of a repository for Shakespearean research.

In the 1940s, the idea of applied research — doing research based on a contract with a government agency or company and then moving on to something else when the contract was done — was fairly new, but founders saw promise on that path.

There was another sticking point, though. To prosper, an applied research institute needs to constantly search for and win contracts. But MRI captured a master schmoozer. From 1950 to 1975, Charlie Kimball, a scientist with a personality described as a force of nature, led the institute as well as many civic activities.

He “drummed up business for MRI and for Kansas City,” recalled his long-time friend and institute trustee, Morton Sosland, a Kansas City businessman. “At one time nothing went on in Kansas City unless Charlie Kimball was involved.”

One of Kimball’s notable civic achievements, shared with Hallmark Cards’ Donald Hall, was heading Kansas City’s “Prime Time” campaign in the 1970s, a publicity campaign largely credited with attracting the 1976 Republican National Convention to the city along with other developments.

The research institute, renamed MRIGlobal in 2011 and still prominently situated on a picture-postcard site south of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art mall, hasn’t in recent years played the same integral role in civic life.

“That’s not the case now, and I’m not sure it needs to be,” Sosland said, noting the confidentiality of much of its government and private-sector work.

He, board members and officers agreed: The focus now must be on the drumming-up-business part that Kimball did so well. And that means building relationships with government and private-sector contractors so there’s always work in the pipeline.

To that end, MRIGlobal is re-energizing efforts to win private business. In the early days, a big share of the institute’s work was for corporate clients. Its researchers helped make the M&M coating that keeps the candy from melting in your hand. They helped Folger make palatable freeze-dried coffee and design an early automatic drip coffeemaker.

Its business shifted more to government work, notably in the 1970s, when it snagged work from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to develop tests to detect and measure pollutants so that new environmental laws could be enforced. When that work began to fade along with administration priorities, the same chemists that did EPA work also had the skills to detect chemical weapons, thus meeting new government needs.

Working on a preponderance of classified and proprietary research, MRI necessarily pulled a curtain on itself, and for years it barely rated a ripple when Kansas City movers and shakers were tallied.

Now, according to MRIGlobal board chairman Bill Hall, its directors are the right mix to be civic leaders as well as business generators. In recent years the board has evolved to include people with contacts in industry niches relevant to the institute’s expertise in national security, biochemistry, world health and energy research.

While Kimball’s intense civic involvement led to such programs as Science Pioneers, which backed the Greater Kansas City Science Fair for students, and founding of the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation, those civic cheerleading days generally are past for the institute.

One recent institute CEO, Jim Spigarelli, helped establish the Kansas Bioscience Authority, but that clearly was with an eye toward attracting and sustaining industries in the institute’s animal health and life sciences wheelhouse. Well aligned, too, was the institute’s association with the University of Kansas Hospital to gain National Cancer Center designation.

Tom Sack, a longtime scientist at the institute, has been its CEO for less than a year. He said he’s still trying to understand “how we fit in the community” and “who I need to know.”

But he’s crystal clear that he’s directed to “spend time in Washington. Our customers are in Washington. That’s where I need to be.”

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