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Exploring the Animal Health Corridor: a primer to Kansas City’s big industry

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Halfway between Manhattan, Kan., and Columbia, Mo., Kansas City is smack in the middle of what the Kansas City Area Development Council calls the Animal Health Corridor. According to the council, the Kansas City area is home to 220 animal health–related businesses and 20,000 industry-related jobs. This results in Kansas City being a major player in the global animal health space.

“About a third of what happens in the world of animal health can be traced to companies that have a presence in Kansas City,” Bob Marcusse, president and CEO of the council, said. These numbers are based on a 2006 study, but Marcusse believes these approximate numbers to still be valid. The council said it will release updated numbers later this year.

The 220 business and 20,000 jobs are not all in the animal science or animal nutrition fields; these numbers include support businesses and positions in fields like law, communications and business development, Scott Bormann, chair of the Kansas City Animal Health Corridor advisory board said.

The Animal Health Corridor brand has been in existence for about ten years, but Marcusse said Kansas City’s hold on animal health has been strong for much longer.

“We knew that Kansas City was the center of the animal health industry, but nobody else knew it,” he said.

A decade later, every Kansas Citian likely knows someone who works in the Animal Health Corridor, but few are aware of the corridor’s brand, or even that such a “Corridor” exists. The brand has been effective, however in attracting businesses. Since 2004, 25 new animal health companies set up shop in the Kansas City area, Marcusse said.

According to an overview of the Animal Health Corridor published by the council, the Kansas City area is home to four of the 10 largest global animal health companies — Bayer Healthcare’s Animal Health division, Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica, Ceva Animal Health and Merck Animal Health — and three of the five largest global animal nutrition companies — Mars Petcare, Nestle/Purina and Hill’s Pet Nutrition. These companies develop, manufacture and sell products intended to better the health of food animals, like cattle, poultry and swine, and companion animals, like cats and dogs.

The corridor is also home to colleges of veterinary medicine at Kansas State University and the University of Missouri. Additionally, the International Animal Health and Food Safety Institute is on the K-State Olathe campus. The $28 million facility, which is partially funded by a 1/8 cent Johnson County sales tax, holds 10 labs used for research, graduate-level classrooms and space for community engagement, like classes for middle-school students and lecture series open to the public.

The International Animal Health and Food Safety Institute at K-State Olathe holds 10 research labs, graduate-level classrooms and space for community engagement. (photo by John McGrath/The Hale Center for Journalism)

The K-State Olathe campus focuses on executive education, or educating students who already work full-time. Prema Arasu, K-State Olathe’s recently appointed CEO and vice provost, said companies have expressed that they’re not finding the qualified applicants they need for open positions. She hopes K-State Olathe can help fill this gap.

Currently, the campus offers graduate degrees in adult and continuing education, agribusiness, biological and agricultural engineering, food science, horticulture and veterinary biomedical sciences.

Arasu stressed the importance of education to the corridor.

“I think we know that higher education and economic development go hand-in-hand,” she said. “It’s not just correlation; it’s causality.”

K-State Olathe’s facility is an example of all facets of the Animal Health Corridor brand working together: government, industry, education and community. Arasu calls the way all facets of the corridor work together a “powerful combination.” Her perspective is unique, as she has worked and studied in many other areas of the country, including North Carolina’s Research Triangle, which relies on a similar combination of academia, government and industry.

Strengthening the brand

The Kansas City Area Development Council and its advisory board focus on three strategic priorities to expand and strengthen the Animal Health Corridor brand, board chair Bormann said: public policy, engagement of industry and workforce development.

“(The council is) passionate about the Kansas City economy and growing the economy …,” Marcusse, council president and CEO, said. “The Animal Health Corridor gives us a wonderful opportunity to do that. It’s not the only opportunity — there are many others — but, in economic development, you want to build on your strengths.”

The first strategic priority, public policy, focuses on influencing legislation and government, like with the relocation of NBAF to Manhattan, Kan., and the public funding of K-State Olathe.

The next priority is industry engagement, which occurs throughout the year, but the big events take place in August: Homecoming, a dinner for industry representatives and veterinarians from across the U.S., and the investment forum, where early-stage animal health companies can solicit capital.

Finally, workforce development includes both drawing new employees and businesses to Kansas City and further educating the employees who already live and work in the area. Bormann, who is also vice president of U.S. Commercial Operations at Merck Animal Health, pointed out that Merck employs a broad range of students: biology majors, obviously, but also logistics, legal, accounting and communications majors.

The council and other development organizations, like the Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute, often meet with companies who are considering moves to Kansas City.

Wayne Carter, president and CEO of the institute, believes workforce development is a crucial part of the Animal Health Corridor; he wants to create an ecosystem of life science industry in Kansas City, where human health and animal health businesses can work together. Carter said, this will create new jobs and new advanced technologies.

Carter and the institute are strong proponents of bringing research for translational medicine to Kansas City. After voters failed to pass the translational research tax, the institute initiated plans to solicit private funding for this research. The fundraising goal is $1 billion, or $50 million each year for 20 years. After 20 years, the proposed institute for translational research could be self-sustaining, Carter said.

“Animals have pretty much the exact same diseases that humans have,” Carter said. “We’re trying … to bring those two sides together, to create a bridge, so that there is more interplay between veterinarians, veterinary research, animal health research and human health research.”

Carter lamented technologies that reach an exciting point of development, but then run out of funding. He calls this “the valley of death.” Carter said, by establishing a translational medicine institute, these exciting products could be fully funded.

In the meantime, Carter and the institute advocate for entrepreneurial organizations, especially those that are focusing on mobile health applications. He said there are many potential apps that could link animal and human health. He pointed to America’s obesity epidemic, both in humans and their pets.

“People that walk their pets and that exercise with their pets are able to lose weight quicker, and they’re able to keep the weight off better than if they do it by themselves … by taking their dog for a walk or whatever,” he said. “There is an interplay at work there that we’re trying to foster across this entire region.”

About this series: We are taking an in-depth look at one of the economic engines of the region, the Animal Health Corridor. Over the course of the next several months, we will bring you an inside look at the corridor.

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