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Biothreat Lab Brings Interest from Businesses

It's not expected to open for at least six years, but the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility is already sparking interest from researchers and companies hoping to forge connections with the federal laboratory.

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It's not expected to open for at least six years, but the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility is already sparking interest from researchers and companies hoping to forge connections with the federal laboratory.
No definitive agreements have been signed, but expressions of interest and inquiries have increased since January, when the Department of Homeland Security picked Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., as the site for the $650 million laboratory that will study livestock diseases.
That decision also has intensified inquiries from national and international groups about the Animal Health Corridor, which encompasses more than 120 animal health-related organizations between Manhattan and Columbia, Mo.
"The interest has been quite high," said Tom Thornton, president and CEO of the Kansas Bioscience Authority. "Right now, we have people coming to Kansas to kind of kick the tires, discussing possible research partnerships or looking at the land."
The first definitive step in realizing the economic benefits of biothreat lab occurs Tuesday, when Homeland Security holds a meeting at Kansas State for construction companies interested in submitting proposals to build the laboratory complex.
Construction of the lab is expected to inject $523 million into the Kansas economy and create more than 1,500 jobs. It's scheduled to begin in 2010, with the lab opening in 2015.
When the lab complex opens, it will employ about 350 researchers and 150 support personnel.
Thornton said the 20-year impact of the lab is estimated at $3.65 billion. And that does not include any potential commercialization of products that might develop from the research, he said.
Some researchers are expected to arrive in Manhattan as early as this fall to work in the already-existing Biosecurity Research Institute on the Kansas State campus.
Thornton's group is working on 10 active inquiries related to national biothreat lab. He declined to name any of the interested parties but said they include both research and commercial firms. A year ago, he said, the bioscience authority was tracking only two companies.
Ron Fehr, the city manager of Manhattan, said interest in the city and surrounding regional has increased this year.
Although it's far too early to know how the research lab complex will impact the area, city, state and Kansas State officials are already planning.
They are considering forming a task force similar to one started when Junction City prepared for the influx of more than 30,000 troops and civilians at Fort Riley after the Defense Department realigned and closed several military bases in 2005.
Fehr said that task force was a state-led effort and it's not clear yet whether the state will be involved in a biothreat lab task force or if it will be a regional effort. Either way, he says, Manhattan has an adequate existing supply of homes and subdivisions to absorb an early round of lab-related workers.
"We're really not able to figure out how many (companies) will show up before the construction is even begun," Fehr said. "We don't have a good handle on it yet. But obviously we're very upbeat about the potential."
The government's choice of Manhattan is expected to be a boon for business and research along the Animal Health Corridor, Thornton said, because it validates the region as a center for animal health research and commercialization.
"The decision highlighted the research already being done at Kansas State and all up and down the corridor," Fehr said. "It got people saying 'Wow, we hadn't realized that capability was around in any meaningful way. Maybe we should go figure out what they're doing.'"
The Kansas City Area Development Council is working with a small number of companies that have expressed interest in the region since the lab decision was announced, said Lynn Parman, vice president of life sciences and development.
She agreed with Thornton that the decision improved the reputation of the animal sciences corridor.
"This is just the beginning," Parman said. "If we have this conversation a year from now, we will certainly have more interest. We're just now starting to see the potential."
By Margaret Stafford
Source: The Associated Press