For Kansas Bioscience Authority leaders, selling public on progress not always easy

As the Kansas Bioscience Authority continues to work through issues that include an ongoing forensic audit and criminal investigation in Johnson County, its leadership is struggling to find new ways to explain how it’s contributing to the state’s economy.

While some of its programs are easier to understand, others are much more complicated. And the discussions about how to best report the state-subsidized authority’s dealings has been the subject of discussions among its staff and board of directors.

The authority recently filled two new posts dealing with communications to help with the effort. In addition to the July hiring of Sherlyn Manson, director of communications and marketing, the authority also hired Stephanie Meyer in October to serve in the new role of director of external affairs.

David Vranicar, interim president and CEO of the authority, said Meyer will be dealing directly with communicating with state government officials and other constituencies, including speaking to community organizations like Rotary clubs. Meyer’s post replaces a director of special projects position formerly held by Lindsay Thornton, the wife of former KBA CEO Tom Thornton.

Vranicar said he knows how difficult it can be to communicate information about the KBA. The authority has control over a sizeable amount of state funds. But even how it receives money from the state is determined by a complicated formula that governs how much it receives from taxes collected from the bioscience industry. Last year, the KBA received the maximum amount it was eligible for, or about $35 million, from the state.

Those funds are then invested in a variety of different bioscience projects.

Telling the story

Earlier this month, the authority distributed a press release detailing some of the results of its investments, the latest effort to explain an often complicated set of investments to the public.

The authority makes investments, grants and loans to companies and universities working in the bioscience sector. It announced earlier this week that its $87.5 million in investments since its founding in 2004 had led to $816.5 million in “direct outcomes,” including new jobs, external research funding awarded in Kansas and capital expenditures made as a result of the KBA’s funding.

But KBA officials said it’s hard to know exactly how much of those results were directly tied to the KBA’s investment, as usually KBA funding is made in conjunction with other sources.

In some cases, it’s clearer than others. Take, for example, the KBA’s Eminent Scholar program, said Dan Watkins, a Lawrence attorney who is serving as the chairman of the KBA’s board of directors. The KBA has contributed funds to hire important faculty members in support of the Kansas University Cancer Center’s ongoing quest to achieve National Cancer Institute designation and has supported Manhattan’s effort to bring in the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility.

Roy Jensen, the cancer center’s director, has told the authority’s board that its funding has been critical in getting those faculty members — and the critical NCI funding they bring — to come to KU.

“We’re very proud to be a child in your organization,” Jensen told the board in July.

Watkins said that the KBA contributions for university faculty, which can be in excess of $1 million, are important, even though the universities typically fund half of the packages, too.

Getting more complicated

Other investments, though, aren’t always as simple as paying some money and then having a new faculty member show up in town with research funds in tow. Vranicar recently explained a venture capital program, one of the more complicated programs in the KBA. It has the aim of generating more money for startup firms to spend on their businesses.

The KBA approached eight venture capital firms from out of state (there are no significant venture capital firms in Kansas, Vranicar said). The KBA said it was willing to invest in them, provided the firms agreed to certain stipulations. They must establish a presence in Kansas, for example, and make a good faith effort to invest in Kansas companies.

They’re not required to invest in Kansas companies, though, Vranicar said.

So far, under the program, the KBA has announced intentions to invest $10 million in one firm and $5 million in two others. About half of that money has been invested so far, and Kansas has seen about $20 million in other new investments because of it.

Still, explaining the benefits of a program that invests Kansas state tax dollars in out-of-state companies without requirements that they spend money in Kansas can be a difficult task.

“There is a lot of information, and quite a lot of investments that have been made, so condensing that down and trying to provide meaningful information is always a challenge,” Watkins said.

Looking ahead

The authority is still awaiting the final results of a forensic audit of its funds by the firm BKD ordered by the governor.

“We’re looking forward to having the audit completed and moving past that,” Watkins said.

Kenny Wilk is a former Republican state legislator from Lansing who serves on the board as a nonvoting member representing the Kansas Board of Regents. He wrote the legislation that created the authority in 2004.

He said that he didn’t personally have the solution for the issue but that both the authority and the regents could do a better job of telling the authority’s story to the public.

“It’s not the public’s fault if they don’t understand,” Wilk said.

He said he thought Kansans, and Americans in general, understood the value of investing in innovative research. But it’s not always an easy concept to get across.

“It’s very difficult to explain all of that, but that’s our job to get it done,” he said.

By Andy Hyland

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