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LAWRENCE — A partnership between the University of Kansas and local government has jumpstarted innovation and economic growth in Lawrence, with more expansion plans — including a 10-building campus — on the horizon, local officials said.
The KU Innovation Park offers lab, office, and co-working facilities — as well as business services, mentorship, and support — to technology-focused entrepreneurs, startups, and private companies, and does not take an equity interest in any businesses.
KU Innovation Park has a nonprofit designation as a 501(c)(6) economic development organization, answering to four equal stakeholders: the University of Kansas, the City of Lawrence, Douglas County, and the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce.
Despite operating independently from the university, the park is located adjacent to campus, giving businesses access to university resources and a ready-made pool of potential employees, said Adam Courtney, CFO for the KU Innovation Park.
“We know that a large percentage of KU students leave the area to go find employment,” Courtney said. “We’re hoping to capture some of them, keep the talent that KU is generating in the community, or in the state at least. That’s our goal for these companies, is to grow roots here and grow within the regional economy.”
About 35 percent of businesses currently associated with KU Innovation Park are in life sciences and biosciences, Courtney said, adding that the remainder are tech-related, including companies focused on software development, remote sensing, cybersecurity, engineering, and telecommunications.
“We’ve tried to keep it more specialized, something that’s generally related to the university,” Courtney said. “We know that those companies scale and grow exponentially faster than some of these other businesses, so we’re just really focused on high growth-potential companies.”
Sixty-three companies either currently operate at KU Innovation Park, or have graduated into the local community, according to statistics provided by Michael Smithyman, director of operations for the innovation park.
Those 63 businesses employ a total of 598 people, whose wages total roughly $35 million, Smithyman added.
New name, same mission
Founded in 2009 as the Bioscience and Technology Business Center, the organization rebranded about 18 months ago to KU Innovation Park, a name which Courtney said better reflects the nonprofit’s mission.
“We changed our name to represent assets that we’re leveraging — which are KU assets and innovation — and because we’re trying to build a park here,” he said.
That plan to create a community of innovation took a leap forward in August 2022 with the opening of the Phase III expansion facility, which provides additional office and wet lab space to companies beginning to grow out of their current facilities.
“Of the 12 companies over there, I think 10 are graduates from other facilities within our system,” Courtney said. “So really, it’s a graduation facility. Without us building Phase III, we were at risk of losing a lot of these companies, because they need specialized space.”
Phase III is just the beginning, though, of a 15-year plan to develop a research and business park on KU’s west campus.
By 2036, KU Innovation Park is expected to feature 10 buildings — each one its own phase — comprising 800,000 square feet. Once completed, it is estimated that the innovation park will 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 areas of cybersecurity, remote sensing, and advanced computing.
The Phase V Kansas Bio-innovation and Sustainability Center will be focused on renewable energy, sustainable engineering, and ag-tech.
Beyond the expansion plans at KU Innovation Park, the KU Endowment has initiated the 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, coffee shops, walking trails, a grocery store, day care, and other amenities for individuals working at KU Innovation Park, Bergman said.
“We really are creating an environment that will significantly grow and diversify the economy within the region,” Bergman said.
Breadth, depth of expertise
All the investment in the future economic growth of Lawrence and the Northeast Kansas region already has some folks outside the area taking notice.
In January, KU Innovation Park announced the hiring of David Sprenger as executive vice president of business development.
Sprenger — who brings 15 years of leadership experience in the University of Colorado system — said he was attracted to the collaborative culture that drives KU Innovation Park.
“One thing that 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 technology around it. And so what helped attract me here was a larger community investment in the future of Lawrence, the University, the region, and the state.”
Like Sprenger, Bergman emphasized the value entrepreneurs and businesses receive by being in such close proximity to the KU campus.
“These companies don’t need to have analytical capabilities,” Bergman said. “They can just go across the street and leverage those things. They’ve got brain power over there to just talk about, ‘What should be my next step?’ It’s right there, and it can take many different shapes and forms.”
The vast range of disciplines and expertises present at KU would be difficult to replicate in a business environment, Courtney added.
“The breadth and the depth of expertise that lies in the university, it’s hard to get anywhere else,” Courtney said. “If you went outside to another incubator, I’m not sure they have access to that breadth and depth of expertise that we have.”
Beyond the resources provided by KU faculty and researchers, Courtney said, graduates of KU Innovation Park often provide mentorship to up-and-coming business founders.
“I think that’s an important part of an incubator or accelerator,” Courtney said. “We’re an economic development center, so we’re not your typical incubator. But just the environment here hopefully allows for people to access many different resources in terms of mentorship and business services.”
“There’s nothing better than having a mentor who has done it before,” he continued. “They’re all trying to solve the same issues, and so having them in the same common space, we’re hoping to get people talking. And then, the hope is not to ever lose those connections.”
This story is made possible by Entrepreneurial Growth Ventures.
Entrepreneurial Growth Ventures (EGV) is a business unit of NetWork Kansas supporting innovative, high-growth entrepreneurs in the State of Kansas. NetWork Kansas promotes an entrepreneurial environment by connecting entrepreneurs and small business owners with the expertise, education and economic resources they need to succeed.