LAWRENCE — Directors of two public university business entrepreneurship programs said Thursday the time had come for Kansas lawmakers to consider bringing back a pair of state economic development agencies torpedoed during the administration of Gov. Sam Brownback.
The Kansas Bioscience Authority and the Kansas Technology Enterprise Corp. were once highly touted features of the state's economic development portfolio. They were created and financed by the state to spur ground-up technology and science innovation to accelerate job expansion across Kansas.
KBA was started in 2004 and invested $82 million in start-up firms, but encountered managerial controversy and ouster of the authority's CEO before its assets were sold off in 2016. KTEC was created in 1986 to build economic development centers of excellence at universities. In 2012, Brownback signed a bill dissolving KTEC into the Kansas Department of Commerce.
"There were centers of excellence created around the state via KTEC and the Kansas Bioscience Authority led the nation in terms of identifying the opportunities in bioscience," said Wally Meyer, director of entrepreneurship programs at the University of Kansas' business school. "We're sitting here on the animal health corridor, we ought to leverage that asset."
Maria Meyers, executive director of the Innovation Center at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, Mo., said Kansas suffered from a lack of proof-of-concept investment in potential small businesses.
"I think you really need to take a look at pre-revenue, early-stage investment, and a lot of that was lost with KBA and KTEC dropping," she said.
Both attended the 2019 Kansas Economic Policy Conference sponsored by the Institute for Policy and Social Research at KU. The forum delved into features of the Kansas economy, including population, workforce, community needs and public policy.
It coincided with the Kansas Department of Commerce's launch of an evaluation of state economic development incentives and the agency's initiation of work on a new business development strategy for the state.
Rep. Don Hineman, a Dighton Republican, said the Legislature and Brownback worked to eliminate KTEC and KBA to conform to a philosophical preference for job growth fueled by aggressive supply-side tax cuts rather than direct government investment. The 2017 Legislature rolled back much of Brownback's tax program, and Hineman said there was reason to talk about alternatives.
"It's a conversation we need to have," said Hineman, who chairs the House Rural Revitalization Committee.
Sen. Julia Lynn, an Olathe Republican who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, said there would be little interest during the 2020 session in reviving KBA or KTEC.
"No. Why would we go back to that old model?" Lynn said. "That model didn't work. Maybe there is some other way to approach what they were trying to do, but not those models."
Rep. Jason Probst, D-Hutchinson, said not enough had been done to draw out capabilities of community development organizations backed by city and county governments.
At the same time, he said, powerful corporate interests had helped shape state incentive programs and were at the front of the line to exploit those initiatives.
"We should be as willing to throw money at small business and entrepreneurs as we are at winning these big contracts with big companies, often multinational companies, who have incorporated gaming the incentive plans of different localities as part of their business model," Probst said.
UMKC's Meyers said the state stood a better chance of crafting an inclusive economy if policy included ways of directing cash to emerging entrepreneurs.
"You need to think about how you're going to get that early-stage funding into the hands of people that have great ideas and don't have the ability to move them forward because they don't have a friend or family that can help them," she said.
Tim Cowden, president and CEO of the Kansas City Area Development Council, said Missouri and Kansas needed to cooperate on campaigns capable of delivering jobs to an area divided by State Line Road. A border war in the Kansas City marketplace isn't the answer, he said.
"If we are going to really maximize our potential, we have to strike this true chord of collaboration," Cowden said.