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Kansas City Hopes To Leverage Federal Dollars To Become Bastion Of Biotech

A new federal program to designate and grow tech hubs across the nation seeks to transform the economy of greater Kansas City, hoping to leverage the region’s agricultural research and life sciences expertise, among other industries, to create a biomanufacturing and vaccine production hub. 

If all goes to plan, in the coming years this could mean the construction of additional wet lab space, new training facilities and even a plant for a contract manufacturing organization, according to Daniel Kennedy, vice president of BioNexus KC, the region’s longstanding industry group, which led the successful KC BioHub consortium.

Roughly 4,000 regional workers already help manufacture vaccines of some sort, and industry leaders predict the tech hub designation and successful funding could add 10,000 more such jobs in the region over the next decade.

A federal tech hub designation aims to spur biotech industry growth in Kansas City.

Kansas City was one of 31 regions that received the inaugural tech hub designation from the Biden administration, selected from a field of 200. The program came out of the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022, part of an explosion in federal place-based investments coming since the start of the pandemic.  

Other pharma-adjacent recipients include Richmond, Virginia, for advanced pharmaceutical manufacturing; Birmingham, Alabama, for artificial intelligence-driven biotechnology discovery; Philadelphia for precision medicine; and biomanufacturing in Wisconsin and Puerto Rico. 

The initial designation represents federal recognition of the region’s development strategy. Kansas City will by late February 2024 need to apply for the next phase of the program, which will invest between $50M and $75M each in up to 10 designated hubs.  

That money would be a “drop in the bucket” of what’s needed, Kennedy said, but it is a start that would catalyze more investment and, eventually, more opportunities to educate the corporate leadership and investment talent needed to grow the region’s biotech ecosystem.

The Kansas City-area application, which aims to transform eastern Kansas and western Missouri into a “global leader in biologics and biomanufacturing,” banks on the region’s concentration of animal health, nutrition and medicine companies, the largest such cluster in the world. Talent, Kennedy said, will be the differentiator.

“When companies are selecting a site where they're going to build out, the very first question, probably the first 10 questions they ask us: ‘Where am I going to get my workforce?’” North Carolina Biotechnology Center CEO Doug Edgeton told Bisnow last year, discussing his region’s success in building up a biotech workforce. “‘Who’s going to train them? How can I pull people in? Am I going to have to recruit people from out of state?’”

There is a lot of work to be done to upgrade the region’s talent, companies and real estate to become a destination for biomanufacturing. Extensive technology maturation and talent investment will be needed, Kennedy said. Talent attraction, training and retention will be key. 

“We do have it easier than if there was no existing industry,” Kennedy said. “But this is not the typical way that human vaccine production and development get started.”

There has also been some significant slowdown in the vaccine market, which hit its nadir during the peak of the pandemic. Pharma giants heavily invested in coronavirus vaccine production, including Pfizer and Moderna, have announced steep drops in demand and cost-cutting measures, including closing some large facilities. 

But as more and more municipalities try and attract additional biotech investments, with cities like Columbus, Ohio, trying to kick-start new hubs adjacent to top-tier colleges, it follows that Kansas City would tap into its existing life sciences infrastructure, including the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kansas.

There is already a Pfizer plant in McPherson, Kansas, which started manufacturing a Covid-19 vaccine in 2019, as well as large facilities for firms including Ceva and Scorpius Biomanufacturing.

“You can't deny that those are some of the largest facilities in terms of vaccine development in the country,” Kennedy said.

In North Carolina, the Research Triangle and surrounding regions have become biomanufacturing hot spots, attracting many new facilities and plant developments, in large part due to the extensive investment in workforce education. Kennedy specifically mentioned Raleigh’s success and KC BioHub’s focus on workforce development.  

“The people who made money in the gold rush were the ones who made the picks and axes,” he said.