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'Promise' of funds for bioscience disputed

Only 20 months ago, with much fanfare, the Kansas Bioscience Authority gave scientists in Wichita money to invent a new medical implant industry in Wichita.

They said they'd give them even more in the coming years to reinvent the medical implant industry.

Everyone agreed it would create perhaps 2,000 Wichita jobs over 10 years, and millions in new tax revenue for a state desperate for both jobs and dollars.

And on Tuesday, in what would usually be viewed as good news, the bioscience authority announced it was giving the Wichita scientists another $1.5 million on top of about $4 million it's given them since 2009.

But within days, the bioscience authority, the scientists and Wichita area state legislators appear to be in a public disagreement about how much money was promised.

The scientists, who include specialists from Wichita State University and Via Christi, say they were told in 2009 they'd get $20 million over five years. The head of the bioscience authority said Friday he promised no such thing.

This is important because the scientists 20 months ago and again on Friday said sufficient startup money is critical to building the industry.

Their work "continues to advance extremely well, but we are being hindered by our inability to complete the renovation of our building and to purchase the needed equipment," said Paul Wooley, the chief scientist with the Wichita group known as the Center of Innovation for Biomaterials in Orthopaedic Research, or CIBOR.

State legislators say the scientist group has been telling them, publicly and privately, that the KBA has not given them the money they promised, and that the lack of money is damaging the scientists' ability to invent the new industry and create the jobs and the revenue.

'Broken promises'

On Friday state Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said he's preparing a bill that would bypass the KBA and finance the Wichita scientists directly with the $20 million they say they need.

State Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Bel Aire, said he's introducing a version of that bill in the Kansas House, as early as Tuesday, because, as he said, "promises were made and promises were broken," by the KBA.

Attempting to bypass the KBA would be an unusual move, given that the KBA was created by the Legislature several years ago to collect tax money from the health care industry and use it to finance startup bioscience operations like that being created in Wichita.

But Brunk said that KBA leaders "are conducting themselves in a way that is different from the original intent of the Kansas Economic Growth Act, the original bill that started the KBA.

"There needs to be a higher degree of accountability for taxpayers' money," Brunk said.

KBA president and CEO Tom Thornton, in a written statement and in a Friday interview with The Wichita Eagle, said the KBA in May 2009 never promised the Wichita scientists $20 million over five years, as those scientists have since claimed many times, and as was reported in The Wichita Eagle in May 2009.

"To be clear, the KBA board has NOT promised, approved or committed $20 million ... we do not know where the information came from with regard to the 2009 article in the Eagle, but no such 5-year grant for $20 million exists," Thornton wrote.

To support his statement, Thornton on Friday e-mailed the minutes of the KBA board meeting decision from May 2009, and the news release Thornton had sent out at that time announcing the KBA decision to fund the Wichita scientists.

Those documents mention about $4 million the KBA planned to give the scientists, but not $20 million.

Neither Thornton nor anyone else from the KBA questioned the figure until now.

The $20 million for CIBOR is referenced on websites for Wichita State University, Via Christi Health and the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition.

And Masterson on Friday said that KBA officials told him in 2009 they planned to give $20 million to the Wichita scientists over the next five years.

He and Brunk are not the only legislators criticizing the KBA over the Wichita project.

"We're clearly disappointed that the promises have been broken," State Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said. "That's not a good business model to follow. I'm very confident both the Legislature and the governor will be very upset about broken promises."

Thornton, when asked about the bills being considered by Masterson and Brunk, declined comment, except to say "We remain focused on our commitment to CIBOR and assisting them to achieve the economic outcomes that will position Kansas as a leader in the medical device arena."

Future unclear

All of this comes on the heels of public statements on Jan. 6 by Rich Sullivan, the CEO of CIBOR.

He told south-central Kansas legislators that the group hasn't received all the money promised by the KBA to finance the startup. He said the delay and the lack of money is hampering their ability to reach self-sustainability in five years, and delays it from getting innovative medical devices to market before competitors do.

It is unclear what the future of CIBOR holds without the money.

The KBA and CIBOR announced in May 2009 they were going to use KBA financing to create a new manufacturing industry. The plan was to invent a new generation of aerospace-composite-materials-based medical devices — such as hip and knee replacements, battlefield splints and stretchers, and operating tables.

What would make all of this work well, they all said in 2009, was that Wichita is the home of dozens of cutting-edge companies and hundreds of high-skill engineers and manufacturing workers who know how to work either with aerospace composites or with the medical industry.

Direct funding

Masterson said he is working on a bill that would provide direct funding to the Wichita scientists.

And Masterson also said that his bill would provide direct funding to the several other Centers of Excellence around the state that are asking for more KBA funding than they are getting.

He said authority officials came to his office when he was a state representative in 2009, and delivered a presentation stating their intent to fund CIBOR at $4 million a year for five years.

That level of funding also was outlined in the business plan CIBOR prepared for the authority, he said.

"At the time, I was concerned that most of the funding was in the north and Wichita wasn't getting its share of bioscience dollars," Masterson added.

He said the authority did tell him that to get the $4 million year after year, CIBOR would have to meet performance milestones.

But now, he said, he's hearing from CIBOR officials that they "feel the milestones are unclear, and moving."

Wagle said she's heard the same complaint from the CIBOR scientists.

Masterson said he's concerned that if ongoing funding is not assured soon, the state could lose a large part or all of its original investment.

"Obviously, with entities like CIBOR, time is critical when you're talking about patents and clinical trials," he said.

Delaying or withholding funding for needed equipment "is really hamstringing the whole operation from performing," he added.

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