Taking Our Place in the Animal Health Corridor
Photos by DAVID VINCENT
FORMULATING A STRATEGY A new Topeka Science and Technology Park Task Force formed through the Greater Topeka Partnership is formulating a strategy to make the capital city a high-tech hub for expanding companies and entrepreneurs serving this growing industry.
Additionally, the task force will establish infrastructure for the Topeka Entrepreneurial Ecosystem to support startups creating technology applications for financial services, clinical trial research, agricultural product and process enhancements, and logistics and manufacturing distribution solutions.
Led by Duane Cantrell, managing partner of Fulcrum Global Capital, and Dan Foltz, president of KBS Constructors, Inc., the task force comprises 15 individuals who have spent the past few months touring innovation parks and bioscience and technology centers throughout Kansas, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma to collect ideas. The group concluded its data gathering phase with a commissioned research study that will direct efforts to cultivate public and private partnerships, shovel-ready land, coaching services and capital investment for projects of all sizes.
STRENGTHS OF THE CORRIDOR The corridor, launched in 2006, represents international manufacturing companies and startups providing research, technical expertise and other services fueling innovation. Hill’s Pet Nutrition and J.M. Smucker’s Big Heart Pet Brands, two of the top five global brands, have manufacturing operations in Topeka, and Hill’s, which started in Topeka in the 1930s, has its corporate headquarters and a research campus here.
Many companies are drawn to the corridor because of the myriad strategic benefits that can accrue not only by being clustered in a concentrated area of expertise but also for easy shipping access by truck and rail and an abundant supply of meat and grains. For example, Jinyu, China’s number one animal health company, recently signed an agreement to place its first North American facility in Manhattan, and Biomin America Inc., part of a global agricultural research company based in Austria and a producer of feed additives, will soon be relocating its regional office from San Antonio to Overland Park.
Last year, the chief executive officer of a $15 billion Chinese science and technology company interested in investing in the corridor asked Cantrell why his delegation, en route from Manhattan to Lawrence, wasn’t stopping in Topeka.
“My unfortunate answer was that the capital city’s infrastructure was not yet in place to provide the resources his company required,” said Cantrell, former president of Payless ShoeSource and former president and CEO of the Kansas Biosciences Authority. “That disheartening exchange became a catalyst for galvanizing our efforts to position Topeka as a contender in this market. We weren’t ready for his company, but we’ll be ready for the next one.”
LEVERAGING ATTRIBUTES “We have professional expertise and logistical attributes to leverage here in Shawnee County,” Foltz said, noting annual funding of $5 million through the Joint Economic Development Organization and collaborative opportunities with regional universities, law schools and angel investment groups.
The KS AgGrowth Animal Health Report for 2018 notes that an added incentive for launching alliances beneficial to animal health is the attraction of higher-wage positions averaging 80 percent more than the overall private sector.
In addition to universities producing veterinarians, microbiologists and feed production specialists to continue filling this growing market, Cantrell and Foltz said area colleges, universities and Washburn University Institute of Technology will play a vital role in training lab technicians to supply a qualified workforce at all levels. Topeka Center for Advanced Learning Careers, opening this fall through Topeka Public Schools, will also be an asset.
Each of the communities the task force members visited had experienced significant population and economic growth by expanding their tech resources with Lincoln, Nebraska, being the most compelling example in comparison to Topeka.
Cantrell said that in 1978 Topeka’s population was 124,000 and Lincoln’s was 144,000. Today, Topeka’s population is around 128,000 whereas Lincoln’s is about 295,000.
“Our community has grown about 4,000 people in the last 40 years and Lincoln’s has nearly doubled,” Cantrell said. “Why? Because within 50 miles of Lincoln, there are 10 entrepreneurial incubators, some related to the university but many not.”
Cantrell characterized Topeka as being “in the cradle of success.” He said the city is well situated to capitalize on emerging opportunities because of its worldwide reputation for animal health with Hill’s Pet Nutrition and its proximity to the $1.25 billion National Bioscience and Ag-Defense facility (the Centers for Disease Control equivalent for animal health) opening in 2022 and to renowned veterinary programs at Kansas State University and the University of Missouri. A COMPREHENSIVE APPROACH Although the animal health industry was the initial catalyst for the creation of a task force to support entrepreneurial technologies, Cantrell and Foltz emphasize that agricultural, health care, financial services and other sectors also have rich potential and are key components of a comprehensive approach. They cited the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Missouri, the largest private plant-based research facility in the world; Washington University Medical School, one of the country’s leading medical research centers; and the University of Kansas School of Pharmacy’s number two ranking as further evidence that the I-70 corridor is one of the most robust research centers in the nation.
In fact, Topeka has two of the country’s top clinical research organizations (CRO), Hill’s Pet Nutrition for animal health and Stormont Vail Health for human patient trials.
“CROs provide a critically important step to getting vaccines, drugs, treatments and services to market,” said Cantrell. “Currently, there are about 110 CROs along the I-70 corridor from St. Louis to Manhattan, nearly as many as in North Carolina’s hailed Research Triangle with 120.”
In the area of agriculture, Cantrell said the world’s population is expected to grow from 6.5 billion people to 9.5 billion people by 2050, “creating a need to produce more food in the next 30 years than in the previous 10,000. Production has to increase 70 percent with less land, water and ag labor. In 1960, ag labor was at 8.1 percent and today it’s 1.6 percent. Some of those necessary breakthroughs are going to come from this region.”
The task force’s vision includes two complementary components: (1) a science and technology park to help corporations accelerate development and (2) delivery of new solutions and a downtown center to support startup innovation.
The task force has several ideas for leveraging its existing capital city business and research partners including expanding worker space options.
“In today’s world, corporations like Koch Industries and Garmin are spinning off their innovation teams so they can cross-pollinate in close proximity with other creative minds,” said Foltz. “Having 24/7 space available to move these groups in and out efficiently and incentives like a tech park where they can scale up a manufacturing model of their idea will be critical components of our regional growth strategy.”
The ecosystem needed to support the envisioned tech boom also includes expanded insurance, accounting, legal and financial services as well as a restaurant and retail opportunities, all of which will benefit established employers and residents too.
“The opening of the Topeka Center for Advanced Learning Careers and initiatives like Top Tank’s recent competition to provide seed money for a new business are just two examples of local partnerships addressing quality of life and workforce development,” said Foltz. “Lots of other things are in the works too. People who have been on the sidelines are ready to play.”
A PROMISING FUTURE Now that the research study undertaken by Think Big in Kansas City, Missouri, has been compiled, the task force has created a job description for an experienced entrepreneurial executive to oversee the establishment and growth of Topeka’s emerging entrepreneurial community.
Cantrell and Foltz, who both came to Topeka 40 years ago to start their careers, believe that Topeka’s numerous positive attributes and entrepreneurial spirit will entice companies to consider Topeka as an attractive site for varied business expansion and incubator efforts.
“Our location in the center of the country and our quality of life are advantageous,” said Cantrell, noting that many former corporate executives choose to remain here when they retire. “With Momentum 2022 underway, unprecedented investment in downtown and a commitment among key people to keep our smartest graduates in the state, we believe that Topeka’s future looks very promising.”