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WSU talking with tech firms to bring jobs to Wichita

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, Feb. 24, 2014, at 4:47 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, July 16, 2014, at 8:51 p.m.

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Wichita State University is negotiating with several technology companies about moving to WSU’s campus, bringing what might be hundreds of new high-dollar tech jobs to Wichita over time, university officials said Monday.

WSU president John Bardo outlined some of these plans in a talk to faculty and students on Monday.

WSU is talking to seven companies, Bardo said, about moving into WSU’s planned new “innovation campus,” a four-building complex Bardo hopes to construct on the southeast corner of the campus and on half of what is now WSU’s 18-hole golf course.

John Tomblin, Bardo’s interim vice president for research and technology transfer, said negotiations with companies inside and outside Wichita (and outside the United States) are progressing well.

“We’ve been talking to companies for about a year now,” he said. “And I am very optimistic that we will have very good news on a regular basis from now on.”

Bardo and Tomblin, who has played a leading role in those negotiations, declined to name what companies they are talking with, but Tomblin said two of the companies have hundreds of employees.

Some are in Wichita already but “are looking to grow,” Tomblin said.

So the net effect of what Bardo and WSU are doing, Tomblin said, will likely add hundreds of jobs to the economy, either from new companies moving to Wichita or Wichita companies expanding their workforces.

All this is crucial not only to develop jobs here but to diversify an economy too dependent on aviation companies, Bardo said.

Bardo, in talks to the faculty senate and to the Kansas Board of Regents in recent weeks, has said at least one of those companies is considering taking over the 50,000-square-foot space in a new technology building that Bardo plans to build where the aging Wheatshocker residence hall now stands.

It was Bardo’s idea to build an innovation campus, which Tomblin described in a prepared statement as a place to house “early stage entrepreneurial university spin-out companies and existing technology-based businesses.”

“It will have room for businesses and new research programs to grow, and it will be a place where entrepreneurial faculty and students can explore and pursue the commercialization of their ideas and technologies,” he said.

In the public-private partnerships Bardo hopes to create, “both sides see a huge benefit,” said Andy Schlapp, WSU’s executive director of government relations.

“The companies get to use our research, our researchers, our labs to make products more efficient and more globally competitive. And they get to have a workforce with our students, but with on-the-job training. At the end of a student’s four years of school, they can go to work for the company, and the company says, ‘Hey, we don’t have to spend three years of on-the-job training with this person.’ ”

That’s the same model that the National Institute for Aviation Research has used to combine education with public-private partnerships, said Tomblin, who is also director of the NIAR. “Now with the innovation campus, what we’re talking about is the NIAR model on steroids.”

What WSU gets out of this, Bardo said, is that the school’s students and faculty get to work shoulder to shoulder with real-life companies on projects that create businesses and produce new jobs, dollars and services for the economy.

Bardo said that for the first time in years, there is good news to report in WSU’s relationship with the state government. After consecutive years of watching Gov. Sam Brownback sign off on legislative budget cuts to WSU, the governor himself has recommended to this year’s Legislature that lawmakers spend an additional $2 million in capital improvement money to help build the innovation campus. Bardo said the Legislature has not cut that item from the state budget it is working on.

“Every legislator I have talked with about the innovation campus loves the idea,” Schlapp said.

Bardo has said WSU is confident it can come up with the money to build the innovation campus. He hopes to have the $2 million recommended by the governor. And he plans to use some state money sent to WSU every year as part of the Engineering Expansion Grant, designed to help WSU bring in more engineering students.

“We are not asking for any additional funds other than what the governor put into the budget to support this program,” Tomblin said. “All the funds we are using for the first building have already been allocated to WSU.”

Bardo hopes to have the first tenant in the new building by 2016.

Bardo, in his talk on Monday, also said that things are looking up for WSU with student recruitment. He spent $700,000 to hire companies to contact and advertise WSU to thousands of students all over the country and in Kansas.

Applications from potential students are up 86 percent over last year, he said. Enrollment, which has remained flat at fewer than 15,000 students, may reach an additional 800 students, “give or take 200” next fall, he said.

Numbers like those are hard to predict, he said. So he was glad two other numbers are easy to verify. When he walked into Room 211 in Hubbard Hall to address faculty and students, he said, “What is WSU’s national basketball ranking?”

“Two,” the crowd called out in unison.

“How many games lost?”

“None.”

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @roywenzl.

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