Topeka’s economic development group, GO Topeka, has chosen two national real estate developers to help with the development of a large-scale animal health innovation campus to house Plug and Play’s animal health and ag tech startup accelerator program, as well as research and development labs and office spaces for corporate innovation partners and startup companies.
Katrin Bridges, senior vice president of innovation for the Greater Topeka Partnership, says Topeka was able to announce in August of 2019 that the city had been chosen for the Plug and Play initiative.
Bridges says that Clark Enersen Partners and BioRealty, Inc. have been chosen to evaluate prospective locations. They were chosen for their record of success and expertise in developing scientific research parks, she added.
Putting Topeka on the animal health map
Two sites in Topeka are under consideration for the project. Kanza Science and Research Park would require new construction of buildings to house the accelerator program, while the alternative, a site on the river in downtown Topeka, would be a combination of remodeled buildings and new construction.
“The riverfront would be an ideal spot for innovation and entrepreneurship that has a lot of amenities in place already and would be a perfect ideal site for a mixed development that could include entertainment and retail venues in combination with innovation programs,” Bridges says.
She says the idea to is to have a phased opening for the campus.
“We’d fill one building and then start on the next one as demand dictates. We want a clear plan for building that keeps the project sustainable. We don’t want to overbuild a lot of space and lag behind with getting it filled with startups,” she says. “We are starting with a viability assessment to determine how large the buildings should be and what kind of ratio we should have office space, laboratory space, manufacturing space and even education space.”
GO Topeka’s goal for the innovation campus is two-fold, Bridges says. First, the city is working to enhance the entrepreneurial infrastructure to attract forward-thinking young companies eager to succeed in the animal health and ag technology world. Second, the group wants to “really put Topeka on the map” as part of the Kansas City Animal Health Corridor.
Bridges was hired two years ago to make that happen.
“We are in an ideal location between universities like K-State and KU and Wichita State and in the greater Kansas City area,” she says. “The Animal Health Corridor has done an amazing job of building that brand with a cluster of more than 300 animal health companies, the largest concentration anywhere in the world.”
Plug and Play presses start
Plug and Play is a Silicon Valley-based venture capital and development company looking to expand into the agricultural technology and animal health sector.
Plug and Play already has an established network of corporate partners, venture startups and venture capital, with projects in 15 countries on three continents, and multiple locations including recently announced accelerator project in northwest Arkansas and North Dakota.
“We are building the animal health vertical with them. They have not had an animal health focused accelerator,” Bridges says. “They have existing programs in food and a recently announced ag tech focus in North Dakota, but this is the first involvement in animal health in combination with ag tech.”
Plug and Play is now in the process of contracting between five and seven corporate partners in the animal health or adjacent industries who see opportunity in ag tech and animal health. She says an announcement of who those partners will be is expected this summer.
Once corporate partners are identified, the work of choosing the eight to 12 startup companies that will join the accelerator will begin. Those companies will be chosen out of about 500 startups identified by Plug and Play as having promise. Twenty startups will be selected as finalists who will offer their pitches to the corporations, and eight to 12 of them will win a spot in the accelerator cohort.
Bridges says the first cohort of startups will be announced this fall, and the goal is to add two cohorts a year.
“The selection process is very competitive. Plug and Play and our corporate partners have a vested interest in seeing these entrepreneurs succeed. The goal is to develop technology that the corporate partners can use to help the startups scale up. The corporate partners can provide connection to the resources that will help them succeed,” Bridges says.
She adds that the goal for GO Topeka is to see some of those startups stay and grow in Topeka.
“If even one or two out of each cohort decides to give Topeka a try, they will quickly develop a footprint,” she says. “And there may be some companies that find a better fit in other partner communities in the Animal Health Corridor. If we don’t have resources that they need, we can connect them to another partner who will eventually return the favor as we get more resources developed.”
She says the idea of the innovation campus is to make it easy for startups to succeed.
“We can provide them space, connections, events across the region they can attend to meet university researchers, corporate representatives, different economic development initiatives, school systems and universities to build a talent pipeline,” she says. “That’s all in the plans once we get started.”
Bridges says the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has not slowed Plug and Play down at all.
“We are fully prepared to roll out the first cohort on a virtual platform,” she says. “If anything, COVID-19 has highlighted the need for businesses to reposition themselves for the future. We have to see the silver lining; anywhere there are challenges, there are opportunities. If you wanted to make changes and be more forward-thinking, now is the time to do it.”
Stephen Fay, director of corporate partnerships with Plug and Play, says the company is excited to see Topeka moving forward on building its innovation campus.
“Startups thrive when communities provide intentional space for coworking and collaboration. Topeka's commitment to pursue this concept is precisely why we chose to partner with them, and we are excited to watch this project develop,” he says.
Tom McVey, director of business development with Clark Enersen Partners, says the company will draw on a collective portfolio that includes the Nebraska Innovation Campus, University of Kentucky Coldstream Research Park, University of Nebraska at Kearney, South Dakota State University Innovation Campus and EnterpriseWorks @ University of Illinois Research Park.
“As part of its assessment, our team will perform initial planning for two different site options and identify the key economic drivers and key elements necessary for a successful project of this type based on the current market demand in the region,” says Stan Wendzel, president of BioRealty, Inc., a leading life science real estate investment and development firm.
This article includes information supplied by GO Topeka.