It was late in the night on Dec. 17, 2019, when Kansas State University President Richard Myers took the speaker’s podium at the Manhattan City Commission meeting. In a gray suit and purple tie, he rose to present the vision for the North Campus Corridor and urge the commission to fund the project. Referencing an economic impact study from 2016 which analyzed the possibilities of K-State’s research and development on the region, President Myers made a surprising assertion. “Consultants estimate 3,500-5,000 direct and induced jobs [will be attracted] to the community,” leading to a burst of “economic vitality we’ve not seen here in a long time.”
The possibility of the addition of 5,000 jobs in the next 15 years as a result of partnerships in the North Campus Corridor may raise eyebrows, but only to those who have never heard this commitment before. Over four years ago, in May 2015, then-President of Kansas State University Kirk Schulz made the first commitment to the sitting Manhattan City Commission: If the North Campus Corridor was developed to its potential, K-State and its partners could help create 5,000 jobs in the region by 2035. The means to this goal, Schulz stated, was to build on the strengths of the university, namely NBAF and the historic and growing focus on global food systems, so as to magnetically attract talent and related key industries to the region.
Creating 5,000 new jobs, approximately the equivalent number of current positions at K-State, sounds ambitious if not impossible for a reason. “No university has made this kind of commitment before,” reflects director of economic development Rebecca Robinson from her office at the Kansas State University Institute for Commercialization. Her all-black cardigan drapes across her lap, along with the yellow-lined notepad on which she insists on taking notes, despite being the subject matter authority. She leans forward in her office chair to emphasize the point. “It’s a stunningly bold thing to have done, and two university presidents have made the 5,000 job commitment.” She adds, “This is about an aspiration. But are we going to roll up our sleeves and do it?”
Land Grant History Guides Today’s Mission
As the economic development momentum of K-State builds today, the vision to create regional economic impact and community benefit hails back to the origination of K-State as a land-grant university, following the passing of the Morrill Act in 1862. The Morrill Act offered federal land to states, 30,000 acres for each senator and representative in each state, which was then sold and the money placed in an endowment for the establishment of colleges.
Justin Morrill, a Vermont senator and successful businessman who was unable to receive a formal education himself, submitted the bill to Congress in order to ensure access to practical education for people, no matter their industry or socioeconomic background. These land-grant universities emphasized access to education in agriculture and mechanic education, creating what are known as “A&M schools.” K-State was the first of these land-grant universities, established in 1863 with a focus in agriculture, military tactics, mechanical arts and classical studies, according to K-State’s website.
Nearly 80 years later, Kansas State University Research Foundation, or KSURF, was founded in 1942 with the mission of managing the various patents that emerged from K-State’s research, primarily in line with the land-grant mission of agriculture, science and engineering. Since its inception, KSURF has assisted a myriad of faculty and staff researchers in registering a patent for an innovation and protecting intellectual property.
To further this effort, in 1994, what is now known as the Kansas State University Institute for Commercialization, or KSU-IC, was formed as a not-for-profit corporation to license, commercialize and market the products and ideas generated by K-State faculty, as well as assist in the formation of companies generated by academic research and innovation. Until now, KSURF and KSU-IC have operated in partnership but separately.
In keeping with the theme of successful community partnerships, however, KSU-IC has now merged with KSURF and will be called K-State Innovation Partners, or KSU-IP. The merger will continue the trend of leadership and forward thinking in regional economic development. “Not only will the merging of KSURF and KSU-IC create operational efficiencies, but it will be one of a handful of university units internationally with the mission of advancing corporate engagement, technology commercialization and economic development,” says Robinson of the merger.
KSU-IC Economic Impact 2009-2019
175 Economic Partnerships To Date – companies that the KSU-IC has assisted in advancing
23 Companies Attracted To Date – companies the KSU-IC has assisted in locating to or expanding in Kansas
18 Company Startups to Date – companies the KSU-IC has assisted in starting up or investing in based on K-State capabilities, IP or KSU-IC owned technologies
“Not only will the merging of KSURF and KSU-IC create operational efficiencies, but it will be one of a handful of university units internationally with the mission of advancing corporate engagement, technology commercialization and economic development,” says Robinson of the merger.
The formation of KSU-IP lends additional support for the K-State vision of becoming a Top 50 Research University by 2025, honoring the research, technology and agricultural heritage of the land-grant mission while creating additional economic prosperity for the region through increasing community partnerships and successful corporate engagement.
Unique Partnerships Create Unique Opportunities
One of the most recent and effective examples of the strong relationships across the community was the inception of the Knowledge Based Economic Development partnership, or KBED, launched in 2008. In an effort to create intentional and accelerated momentum around the resources and research of the university, community partners joined together across the region and multiple spheres of influence, including the City of Manhattan, Kansas State University, the KSU Foundation, Kansas State University’s Institute for Commercialization and Research Foundation, the Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce, as well as North Central Regional Planning Commission and Pottawatomie County Economic Development Corporation.
Where formerly KBED has been staffed by the chamber and KSU-IC, the newly merged KSU-IP will continue to play a role in staffing KBED as the organization delivers on the goal of creating and attracting 5,000 jobs in the region and supporting K-State’s pursuit of becoming a Top 50 Research University in the next five years.
KBED takes responsibility to bring together key voices and partners to identify and align goals and create the knowledge-based, economic development strategy for the Manhattan region. According to KBED’s website, “Those strategies include the facilitation of robust private sector/university collaborations, attraction and creation of knowledge based businesses, as well as the development of infrastructure necessary to accommodate a knowledge based economy. Because KBED is organized as an LLC, the formalized partnership allows the town-gown relationship to thrive and creates an added dimension of ownership and responsibility that enables the strategic vision to be executed successfully.”
The numbers speak for KBED’s impact and the success of the relationships they have worked to create. Since its creation, according to a 2019 performance report, KBED boasts a regional economic impact of $48.5 million with 503 full-time jobs created and an additional 268 projected jobs expected, with average salaries over $55,000.
KBED ECONOMIC IMPACT:
$28.1 Million Total Annual Salaries
$55,539 Average Salary Level
$48.5 Million To-Date Economic Impact
$77.3 Million Projected Economic Impact
503 FTE Jobs Created in the Region
771 Projected FTE Jobs
$55.9 Million Capital Investment
Jason Smith, who took the role of president of the Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce in March 2019, says that university cities often build on the strengths of their co-located educational institutions. Referencing his previous experiences in university towns, he says, “You see infrequent collaboration in other cities, but here we meet as a KBED team a couple times a month and walk through projects, get updates and create marketing strategies. We are joined at the hip at the envy of comparable cities. We are able to achieve a lot more through that collaboration.”
Since KBED is an established entity and not simply a network of informal relationships, Smith believes this gives the Manhattan area a unique edge in attracting and retaining business. “The business community, city and university have a formalized relationship through KBED which allows for creating consistent and collaborative programming. It allows resources and personnel to work in the same direction. It’s unique to our community in how it’s been formalized, and it’s created a consistent dialogue not seen in other university cities. In that way, we’re ahead of the curve.
The uniqueness of the collaborative nature between university and city has even gained national attention with award recognition for the town-gown relationship and the work of K-State in furthering local economic development. The latest award was granted in 2016 when KBED received the Enhancing Prosperity Through Competitive Industries award from the State Science and Technology Institute.
In a recent KBED Performance Report, KSURF Vice President for Research Dr. Peter Dorhout says, “The concept of Knowledge-Based Economic Development ties directly to our land-grant mission at K-State. In partnership with leaders in the region, the university leverages its talent and unique college-town atmosphere to attract corporate partners to work with us in the Flint Hills. Our KBED partnership has been recognized as a national model in integrating innovation and economic prosperity goals to build an ecosystem that supports our communities and makes the area a great place to live, work and play.”
Topcon One of Many Recent Success Stories
Cloudy daylight pours in through a massive wall of windows on the east end of K-State Office Park’s second floor. A crisp conference room and white work counter sit ready for use just outside the newly-opened Topcon Agriculture Research Campus offices. Overhead, the radio station is tuned to Joe Cocker bellowing, “I’m feeling alright.”
Aside from the music, the floor is bright and quiet, yet full of an expectant energy. Inside the Topcon office, an open layout hosts work desks and computers waiting patiently in set-up mode. A generous wall of windows overlooks the view of several of K-State’s agricultural offerings: the Agronomy North Farm, the Hal Ross Flour Mill and the Kruse Feed Technology Innovation Center. This location seems ideal for the precision agriculture company, Topcon, one of the newest companies to make a home in Manhattan due to the corporate engagement efforts of KBED and KSU-IC.
“Global food systems is one of the primary industries KBED engages,” Robinson says early one morning from a table at the Bluestem Grill, one floor below Topcon’s new office at the K-State Office Park. Today she’s between meetings, huddled over a cup of coffee, still wearing black. “That includes everything from animal health, plant science and other related fields, but also includes biosecurity and biodefense related to infectious disease research for animals. We have the Biosecurity Research Institute next door to NBAF, which is another bridge for industry to engage the university.”
In October 2018, Topcon formally announced the opening of their K-State location, another step in an increasing series of partnership movements encouraged and facilitated by KSU-IC and KBED. “Topcon Agriculture and K-State have been working together for two years on various projects, and both entities sought a deeper, multifaceted partnership that would differentiate the typical vendor and university relationship,” said Fabio Isaia, CEO of Topcon Agriculture, in a press release regarding the opening. “This strategic partnership will boost our R&D technology advancement to accelerate the commercialization of farmer-driven innovation.”
The partnership with Topcon is a win for the region, the university and the company, Robinson explains. “Topcon sponsors research and invests philanthropically in the university, and K-State is developing a training program for their staff. They also hire K-State interns and alumni. This robust partnership led to opening a location here.” She adds, “Other companies are in that corporate engagement process as well.”
In keeping with the goal of utilizing the university’s global food systems resources and research, various city-university partnerships like KBED appear to be gathering meaningful momentum in the North Campus Corridor, just as they predicted. “We’re leveraging KSU’s capabilities and areas of strength, like global food systems,” Robinson explains rapidfire as someone who speaks on this topic daily. “This is one of the best and broadest examples.”
The ambitious goal of creating 5,000 jobs by 2035 is a daunting one, but Robinson and her partners are ready to follow through on the pledge made by the current and previous university presidents. “We keep telling the story because we are serious about this commitment.” Her voice picks up intensity again. “How many people thought we could get a one and a quarter billion dollar federal investment into our community? But we did.” Leaning forward, she adds, “This is a bold plan, and we plan to deliver.”
Sarah Siders is a freelance writer, author and coach who specializes in leadership and healthy relationships.