David Barger of Overland Park can’t remember for sure how he reacted when the Johnson County Education Research Triangle sales tax was on the ballot in November 2008.
“I probably voted for this. I usually do for anything that says ‘research,’ ” the semi-retired cable TV weatherman said.
Now, a little more than three years after a substantial majority of voters approved the one-eighth cent tax, Barger is among the first county residents to directly benefit from it.
Barger is receiving an experimental cancer drug through the University of Kansas Medical Center’s new Clinical Research Center. The center on Shawnee Mission Parkway in Fairway was built with Research Triangle tax money.
“I love the place being here” — it’s a 15-minute drive from his home, Barger said. “I’m sure I’m paying taxes for it, but I’m using it.”
KU’s clinical research facility is one of the three points forming the Johnson County Education Research Triangle — from Fairway to Overland Park to Olathe — a project that began percolating among Kansas educators and community leaders nearly a decade ago.
The University of Kansas wanted more classroom space to expand business, engineering, science and technology programs for undergraduates and graduates on its Edwards campus in Overland Park. KU’s School of Medicine needed a cozy spot to test drugs and treatments using human subjects, a key element of the university’s gaining long-sought-after National Cancer Institute designation. And Kansas State University wanted an animal health and food safety research center where graduate students could study and research alongside scientists working with food or animals in the bioscience industry.
Alone, each might have been hard pressed to get funding needed to support new state-of-the-art buildings and sustain the personnel it would take to operate what each had envisioned.
“I think there was the understanding that the state was not going to step up,” said Johnson County Commissioner Ed Eilert, who heads the board that oversees the triangle tax money.
But bundled together like an Internet, cable and telephone package, an economy-boosting triangle of education and research became more attractive for public funding.
Kansas leaders began selling the triangle idea. Using legislation enacted in 2007 by then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, they proposed a county-wide sales tax to pay for an education research triangle.
Its three points would bring Kansas State University from Manhattan to Olathe and open doors for the bioscience industry and academia to mingle; allow the University of Kansas to build stronger footing in Johnson County; and establish the KU Clinical Research Center to help KU’s efforts to gain its National Cancer Institute designation, a title the school has had in its sights for more than a decade.
“As it turned out we were asking people for a tax in 2008 right at the time when people were the least likely to vote for more taxes,” said Dan Richardson, chief executive officer of the K-State Olathe campus.
The idea was advertised with a promise that the local economic benefit could exceed $1.4 billion during the first 20 years.
“These three projects will create high-income technology jobs, attract thousands of visitors, stimulate startups in science and technology, and produce a highly educated work force,” longtime Johnson County civic leader Mary Birch wrote in a letter to The Kansas City Star at the time.
Voters bought it as an economic engine for progress and prosperity in Johnson County, across the state and throughout what has been dubbed the animal health corridor, a region stretching from Columbia, Mo. to Manhattan, Kan.
By a 57-43 percent vote, Johnson County voters approved the eighth of a cent sales tax and the formation of a seven-member board that watches over the money.
Johnson County Education Research Triangle Board members are elected officials, one each appointed by the Kansas Regents, Kansas state education board, Johnson County Commission, Johnson County Community College trustees and Kansas State University president. The chancellor of the University of Kansas appoints two members. Each member serves a maximum of two, four-year terms.
The tax brings in nearly $15 million a year. The money is divided evenly among the three universities.
K-State opened the first triangle building last April. With the opening earlier this month of a KU Edwards campus building, each university has used the sales tax money for a new research or education center.
Much of the economic return that leaders envisioned will come from K-State Olathe with its concentration on animal health research, bioscience technologies and food safety.
The animal health corridor has a third of the world’s animal health business located in it, and K-State Olathe is smack in the middle. New businesses are coming to Johnson County to reap the benefits of being part of the corridor, said Eric Danielson, director of business development for architectural firm Treanor, which designs bioscience labs in the area.
“We have without question already seen an uptick in companies related to animal health moving into the greater Kansas City area since the triangle,” Danielson said. “They recognize that if one company can be successful here, others can too.”
Although some impact is being felt, the triangle is not about short-term returns, Olathe Mayor Michael Copeland said. “The dream we have is very, very big. We want to see the campuses, the community, the economy grow. It’s a long runway,” he said.
The triangle is off to a great start, Birch said.
“Forty years ago who would have thought that one little building in Johnson County would end up being Johnson County Community College,” she said. “And 40 years from now they will say the same thing about the triangle.”K-State Olathe
Randall Tosh stood among a herd of 100 cattle in a field in rural Kansas aiming a plastic gun he calls an applicator. Finger on the trigger, Tosh fired. A blast of carbon dioxide forced a quarter-size capsule through the air about 20 feet to explode against a bovine hide. The capsule released a yellow-colored insecticide, proven to kill the horn flies that plague cattle and cost U.S. farmers millions a year in productivity.
Tosh, vice president of business development for Smart Vet and the sole U.S. employee for the global company, is nearly ready to release the product into the marketplace — from the K-State Olathe Innovation Campus, located on College Boulevard near Kansas 7, the westernmost point of the research triangle.
Smart Vet brought the raw applicator to the U.S. from Africa and set up shop at the K-State Olathe campus, where the insecticide and applicator have been tested and refined for broad commercial use in livestock across the country by next year.
Smart Vet is one of the new businesses in K-State Olathe’s first building, a $28 million, 108,000 square-foot facility that opened last April. Called the International Animal Health and Food Safety Institute, it is the flagship of what ultimately could be a campus of six to eight buildings, said campus CEO Dan Richardson.
The campus, on more than 30 acres the city of Olathe gave to the university in 2007, has enough land to build another 500,000 or 600,000 square feet of labs, classrooms and offices.
So far about a dozen faculty members work in Olathe, but Richardson expects that number to grow as more programs are added. Classes won’t begin in the building until this fall.
As part of the agreement with the city of Olathe, the campus has partnered with the Olathe school district. Students from six Olathe schools and some adult learners have attended workshops there on food handling and food safety. Area food service companies already have used the building’s industrial-sized kitchen trying out new recipes and restaurants have trained workers there in proper food delivery.
Another feature of the facility’s program has some K-State students, and even some high school students, working in labs as interns or researchers with industry professionals.
At the Sensory and Consumer Research Center in the new building, K-State researchers are testing a variety of new products with random consumers. Research and development scientists will even spy on dogs and cats through a viewing mirror to test new foods, treatments and toys before they go on the market.
“We have had more than 9,000 people in and out of this building since it opened,” campus spokeswoman Kristie Northcutt said. “This place is buzzing with activity.”
The campus’s close association with industry is a key part of its mission — and success. Case in point: The Olathe campus is also home to the Kansas Bioscience Authority, a nonprofit that isn’t a part of the triangle but has a symbiotic relationship with K-State Olathe.
The authority is a $581 million initiative established to foster and promote the area’s bioscience industry by lending financial support to startups, research institutions, inventors and entrepreneurs. Together, the authority and K-State Olathe are working to capitalize on their geography in the animal health corridor.
Smart Vet chose Kansas for its startup “because of the proactive support we got from K-State and the presence of the Kansas Bioscience Authority,” Tosh said. “That type of proactive support from K-State Olathe is essential for startup companies like us. Being in the animal health corridor is why companies like us want to locate here.”
K-State built 10 labs in the institute and all are occupied or claimed by K-State or businesses. One is the U.S. China Center for Animal Health, which is working to improve veterinary medicine training and treatment in China. Another is the Urban Water Institute, established to help cities assure a sustainable water supply.
The Center for Animal Health Innovation, a public-private consortium that links nine area animal health companies and regional universities and government agencies, opened in the institute last April. The Kansas Bioscience Authority, which brokered a million-dollar deal to bring the consortium to the K-State Olathe campus, is paying its rent for the next three years while the company matures.
Dan Getman, president of the Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute, in Kansas City, worked with the bioscience authority to lure the company to Olathe. The triangle’s Olathe campus is a key part of the animal health corridor for training workers and building partnerships with businesses, he said.
The triangle will have a “broad impact in the region, not just in Johnson County,” Getman said. “When any part of the region does something good it raises the rest of the region.”
An example of the impact the K-State campus is having on the Johnson County economy is Abaxis Veterinary Reference Laboratories. Joyce Coker Dreier, a spokeswoman for the Olathe Chamber of Commerce, called it one of the best examples of return on investment from the triangle sales tax.
Mark Patterson, president of the animal health division of Abaxis, had been doing outside lab testing for doctors and clinics in the area, but wanted to move into animal health testing for veterinarians, a $800 million business that at the time only had two major national players in the animal health corridor.
Patterson bumped into Dan Richardson at a conference and mentioned his idea for an animal testing laboratory. A team that included Patterson, K-State and the Kansas Bioscience Authority was born. After lots of talks, Patterson took his idea to Abaxis, which picked up the concept as a division of its national company.
The Kansas Bioscience Authority awarded Abaxis a $650,000, three-year grant in May 2011. Abaxis laboratories opened in years-vacant space at 14830 W. 117th St. in Olathe.
“We have hired 30 people and plan to hire 10 more,” Patterson said. “We have put a lot of money into this economy here in the last year. If K-State Olathe hadn’t been here, though, if I hadn’t run into Dan Richardson, this might still be just an idea I was harboring for 20 years. If they were not in the area this might not have ever happened at all.”KU Edwards
The KU Edwards campus point on the triangle has been the lowest profile of the three but it is no less significant. The BEST — Business, Engineering, Science and Technology — building opened earlier this month and students have begun attending classes there, mostly in the evening.
KU’s portion of the triangle is used to educate undergrads and grad students in the four disciplines.
Some have questioned how business, engineering, science and technology connect with the bioscience mission of the triangle tax.
The answer, said Vice Chancellor Robert Clark, is that they don’t.
“I knew that the bioscience thing could cloud the issue of education and re-training because two of the points in the triangle are bioscience related,” Clark said. “But we are the education part of the triangle. The eighth of a cent is not intended to focus just on bioscience.”
The portion of the tax money that goes to KU Edwards “was intended to make sure the economic engine of Johnson County remains healthy,” he said.
For that to happen, for industry to move into the area, companies need to know the area has a well trained work force to sustain their operation. And there is a lot more to running a company than the research and development. There also is the business end.
And then there’s this; Clark predicts it will take about 20 years before the area’s bioscience industry, including the role of the education research triangle, takes a firm, nationally recognized hold. “In the meantime we have to keep the information technology, business and engineering industries here healthy,” Clark said.
That task, he said, will be met with graduates from BEST programs and the stream of Johnson County Community College associate-degree graduates that feed into bachelor programs on the KU Edwards campus.
The first BEST program, a bachelor’s of business administration, began in spring 2010. Another 11 new academic programs within the BEST disciplines await approval from the Kansas Board of Regents and are to be launched later this year.
The $23 million, 75,000-square-foot building is the third on the Edwards campus and will serve an additional 1,000 students. The energy-efficient building holds 12 high-tech classrooms; five lecture halls; 36 faculty offices; five computer labs; and a 250-seat conference center.
Of the $12 million that the KU Edwards campus has gotten from the triangle tax since 2010, about half has gone for construction. The other half has paid for the business, engineering, science and technology programs offered to graduate and undergraduate students, including salaries for the faculty and staff.
Cynthia Bishop, a stay-at-home mom of two teens, got one of the first degrees offered through the BEST program with the help of a $1,500 BEST scholarship. A portion of the triangle sales tax agreement — $100,000 a year — is dedicated to scholarships for Johnson County residents to enroll in academic programs at KU or pursue animal health and food safety degrees at K-State.
Bishop’s scholarship is already paying off. Since graduating in May with a bachelor’s in business administration, she has launched a new landscaping and garden design business in Olathe.KU Medical Center
The small bus that rolled through Fairway with a police escort last month didn’t hold a rock band or a campaigning politician. It carried a less attention-grabbing group of luminaries: prominent out-of-town cancer researchers.
For KU Medical Center, the VIP treatment was well worth the effort.
The scientists were in town to judge KU Med’s bid to become a National Cancer Institute designated cancer center. Getting that designation has been one of the region’s leading civic goals for more than a decade.
KU took the scientists to Fairway to get a look at the medical center’s new $19 million Clinical Research Center. It’s the northern point of the Education Research Triangle.
Tucked into an office park on Shawnee Mission Parkway, the center is a key part of KU’s strategy for becoming a major player in the research that turns laboratory discoveries into drugs and other therapies. Its labs are equipped to run sophisticated blood analyses. Its patient rooms have more of the ambiance of a spa than a medical clinic.
It is the place where KU plans to offer new drugs at the earliest stages of testing to patients with cancer and other diseases who often have no good alternatives. Many of these drugs, KU hopes, will be developed by its own scientists.
This kind of “lab bench to bedside” translational research has become a high-stakes game at universities nationwide. Success leads to government and foundation research funds, to licensing agreements between drug companies and universities and their faculties, to start-up companies that fuel local economies.
KU Med’s patient research had been hampered by crowded and often antiquated facilities. Some patient studies were being conducted in “the depths and bowels of old basements of the medical center,” said Maxine Stoltz, senior executive director of the Clinical Research Center. Cancer studies were being done at KU’s newer Westwood cancer treatment center, but “we were getting so squeezed in there,” she said.
Stoltz said discussions about a new center for patient research began well before voters approved the sales tax. By early 2008, the Hall Family Foundation already had purchased two buildings in the Fairway office park for the project. Planning meetings started right after the measure was passed.
“We started with a blank slate,” Stoltz said. One of the buildings the Hall Foundation donated was gutted and rebuilt with the aim to make the experiences of patients and researchers efficient and comfortable. By this January, the center was seeing its first patients.
To get the center up and running quickly, KU used about $5 million it had received from the tax and issued $14.4 million in bonds to cover the remaining costs. Going forward, about $1 million of the tax money each year will be used to make payments on the bonds; the rest of the money KU receives, about $3.5 million annually, will go toward the center’s operating costs.
KU made the Clinical Research Center and its other translational research capabilities a major selling point in its application to become a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center. Gaining that designation would place KU Med in a peer group with the likes of M.D. Anderson, Dana-Farber and Roswell Park. Beyond the prestige, there would be very tangible benefits from the designation, such as sizeable government grants and enhanced opportunities to take part in cutting-edge research.
KU Med won’t know the National Cancer Institute’s decision until this summer at the earliest. But the tax already may be helping the medical center to land lucrative federal grants.
After failing to get it in the past, KU won a special $20 million award last year from the National Institutes of Health to develop translational research at the medical center and other health institutions. In its application for the award, KU was able to cite the tax as evidence of the community’s strong support for medical research.
That community support also has been a factor in attracting prominent scientists to KU.
Cancer researcher Raymond Perez was lured from Dartmouth Medical School to be the Clinical Research Center’s medical director.
“The thing that is really unique here, I don’t know of any other center like this built with not only philanthropic but public support, people taxing themselves,” Perez said. “I look forward to that paying dividends.”
The Clinical Research Center already has a dozen early-phase cancer studies underway, as well as 67 more trials in early and later phases on such conditions as Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, diabetes and chronic liver disease. In the years ahead, Stoltz anticipates that the center will be running as many as 50 cancer studies and at least 100 studies on other conditions at a time.
Lisa Wright is a cancer research nurse at the new center. The studies she works on are often very complex and require a lot of blood and tissue samples. That’s hard to manage in a clinic where patients on experimental drugs are mixed in with patients receiving established therapies.
“You’re asking everyone to do something different from their normal routine,” she said. “It’s hard to do when you’re caring for 10 patients with different needs.”
That isn’t an issue at the Clinical Research Center.
“Everyone here is about the research project,” Wright said. “They know the protocols.”
Wright had good news for Barger when he came to the research center recently for a check up.
Barger has a condition that damaged the blood-forming cells in his bone marrow. He wasn’t producing enough red blood cells, and that left him tired and short of breath.
But when Wright looked at Barger’s latest test results, the three pills a day he’s been taking since October seemed to be paying off.
His red and white blood cell counts were nearly up to normal, and he had fewer abnormal cells in his bone marrow.
“How am I looking?” he asked her.
“You’re looking darn good.”