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How This Innovation Park Hopes to Keep College Talent in Kansas After Graduation

Startland News’ Startup Road Trip series explores innovative and offbeat ideas that find success in rural America and Midwestern startup centers outside of metropolitan Kansas City. This series is made possible by Entrepreneurial Growth Ventures (EGV), a business unit of NetWork Kansas that supports high-growth, innovative entrepreneurs in the State of Kansas.

LAWRENCE – A partnership between the University of Kansas and local government has sparked innovation and economic growth in Lawrence, with more expansion plans — including a 10-building campus — on the horizon, officials said locals.

The KU Innovation Park offers labs, offices and co-working facilities, as well as business services, mentoring and support, to technology-focused entrepreneurs, startups and private companies and does not take stakes in any company.

KU Innovation Park has a nonprofit designation as a 501(c)(6) Economic Development Organization, answerable to four equal stakeholders: the University of Kansas, the City of Lawrence, Douglas County, and the House of Lawrence trade.

Though it operates independently of the university, the park sits adjacent to the campus, giving companies access to university resources and a ready-made pool of potential employees, said Adam Courtney, CFO of KU Innovation Park.

“We know that a large percentage of KU students leave the area to look for work,” Courtney said. “We hope to capture some of them, keep the talent that KU is generating in the community, or at least in the state. That’s our goal for these companies, it’s to take root here and grow within the regional economy.”

About 35 percent of companies currently associated with KU Innovation Park are in life sciences and biosciences, Courtney said, adding that the rest are technology-related, including companies focused on software development, remote sensing, cybersecurity, engineering and telecommunications.

“We tried to keep it more specialized, something that’s generally university-related,” Courtney said. “We know these companies scale and grow exponentially faster than some of these other businesses, so we focus only on companies with high growth potential.”

Sixty-three companies currently operate at KU Innovation Park or have graduated from the local community, according to statistics provided by Michael Smithyman, director of operations for the innovation park.

Those 63 companies employ a total of 598 people, whose wages total about $35 million, Smithyman added.

New name, same mission

Founded in 2009 as the Bioscience and Technology Business Center, the organization was rebranded about 18 months ago to KU Innovation Park, a name Courtney says better reflects the nonprofit’s mission.

“We changed our name to represent the assets we’re harnessing – which are KU assets and innovation – and because we’re looking to build a park here,” he said.

That plan to create an innovation community leapfrogged in August 2022 with the opening of the Phase III expansion facility, which provides additional office space and wet labs for companies beginning to grow beyond their current facilities. .

“Of the 12 companies over there, I think 10 are graduates of other facilities within our system,” Courtney said. “So really, it’s a graduation facility. Without us building Phase III, we risked losing many of these companies, because they need specialized spaces.”

Phase III is just the beginning of a 15-year plan to develop a business and research park on KU’s west campus.

By 2036, KU Innovation Park is expected to include 10 buildings, each with its own phase, covering 800,000 square feet. Once completed, the innovation park is estimated to be directly responsible for at least 4,000 jobs.

Initiatives for Phases IV and V have already begun, Courtney said.

Phase IV will see the creation of the Kansas National Security Innovation Center, which will house companies in the fields of cybersecurity, remote sensing, and advanced computing.

The Phase V Kansas Center for Bioinnovation and Sustainability will focus on renewable energy, sustainable engineering, and ag-tech.

In addition to plans to expand the KU Innovation Park, the KU Endowment has begun development of a “live-work-play” environment called The Crossing, according to Tricia Bergman, associate vice chancellor for economic development.

The Crossing is expected to include apartments, restaurants, cafes, walking trails, a grocery store, daycare and other amenities for people who work at KU Innovation Park, Bergman said.

“We are truly creating an environment that will significantly grow and diversify the economy within the region,” Bergman said.

Breadth, depth of expertise

All of the investments in the future economic growth of Lawrence and the Northeast Kansas region have already noticed some people outside the area.

In January, KU Innovation Park announced the hiring of David Sprenger as executive vice president of business development.

Sprenger, who has 15 years of leadership experience in the University of Colorado system, said he is drawn to the collaborative culture that drives KU Innovation Park.

“One thing that has struck me is the culture,” Sprenger said. “I don’t know how many economic development centers bring in public partners to advance private industry and the technology around it. And so what helped attract me here was a greater investment by the community in the future of Lawrence, the University, the region and the state.

Like Sprenger, Bergman emphasized the value entrepreneurs and businesses receive from proximity to the KU campus.

“These companies don’t need to have analytical skills,” Bergman said. “They can just cross the street and exploit those things. They have the brain power down there to just talk about, ‘What should be my next step?’ It’s right there and it can take on many different shapes and forms.

The broad range of disciplines and skills found at KU would be difficult to replicate in a corporate environment, Courtney added.

“The breadth and depth of expertise found in the university is hard to find anywhere else,” Courtney said. “If you’ve gone outside to another incubator, I’m not sure they have access to that breadth and depth of experience that we have.”

In addition to the resources provided by KU faculty and researchers, Courtney said, KU Innovation Park graduates often provide mentorship to emerging business founders.

“I think that’s an important part of an incubator or accelerator,” Courtney said. “We are an economic development hub, so we are not your typical incubator. But hopefully, just the environment here gives people access to a lot of different resources in terms of mentoring and business services.”

“There’s nothing better than having a mentor who’s done it before,” she continued. “They’re all trying to solve the same problems, so by having them in the same common space, we hope to get people talking. And then, the hope is that you never lose those connections.

This story is made possible by Entrepreneurial Growth Ventures.

Entrepreneurial Growth Ventures (EGV) is a business unit of NetWork Kansas that supports high-growth, innovative entrepreneurs in the State of Kansas. NetWork Kansas fosters an entrepreneurial environment by connecting entrepreneurs and small business owners with the experience, education and financial resources they need to be successful.

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