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Envision unveils $3.1 million research facility

Institute director talks about going forward

Laura Walker, executive director of the Envision Research Institute, talks about how the new facility will impact Envision's ability to make a difference. (Matt Riedl/The Wichita Eagle)
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Laura Walker, executive director of the Envision Research Institute, talks about how the new facility will impact Envision's ability to make a difference. (Matt Riedl/The Wichita Eagle)

Envision on Thursday unveiled a new facility dedicated exclusively to researching blindness and visual impairment, a project years in the making.

It marks a bold step forward for the 83-year-old Wichita organization, which for years was perhaps best known for manufacturing plastic bags for the military and printing business cards.

“We’re still making over 3 million plastic bags a day and over 2 million business cards a month, but what we’re doing is fueling these missions with the income generated by the manufacturing operations,” said Envision President and CEO Michael Monteferrante. “In addition to employing hundreds of individuals, we now get to service thousands of individuals and actually apply a science of low-vision rehabilitation that individuals who are (blind or visually impaired) can use each and every day.”

Laura Walker, executive director of the Envision Research Institute, talks about how the new facility will impact Envision's ability to make a difference. (Matt Riedl/The Wichita Eagle)

With the unveiling of the 12,500-square-foot Gigi and Carl Allen Envision Research Institute on Thursday, the Wichita-based organization aims to position itself as a leader in low-vision and blindness research both nationally and internationally.

It is one of few in the country dedicated to performing this specific kind of applied research.

“We’re dealing with the problem that no one is working on, really, which is … removing the functional barriers once the vision’s been impacted,” said Laura Walker, executive director of the institute.

We’re dealing with the problem that no one is working on, really, which is that removing the functional barriers once the vision’s been impacted.

Laura Walker, executive director of the Envision Research Institute

Envision raised $3.1 million – with the help of a $300,000 challenge grant from the Mabee Foundation – for the facility, which exists entirely on the third floor of its downtown complex at 610 N. Main.

The institute has been functioning since February 2015, when Walker was hired as its executive director, but it has had no permanent home until now.

Prior to the construction of the institute, the floor was largely vacant and was used most often for martial arts classes for Envision patients.

The facility, which is complete with research labs and offices, paves the way for Wichita to become a hub for scientific research, Walker said.

The goal of the institute is not to research cures for blindness – its aim to “remove the functional barriers” that come after visual impairment has occurred.

“I think we’re actually creating a completely new field in a way,” Walker said “There’s been research for many years in low-vision rehabilitation, but it’s been somewhat stagnant and sorely underfunded. Rather than bringing the traditional vision scientists , we’re going to bring in engineers, clinicians, and service providers that … work with kids.”

This kind of research will only become more valuable in the coming years, as the population continues to age and encounter degenerative eye problems, Walker said.

“The people whose lives we can impact is just growing,” she said. “On the other end, there are all these medical advances in children surviving prematurity. There are all kinds of problems, new problems that we’ve not really had to deal with before.”

The institute is considered a “dry lab,” meaning its researchers will not be performing surgeries or anything similar.

Its focus is on improving technologies used in rehabilitation, Walker said. There are four post-doctoral research fellows currently working with the institute, all of whom are natives of countries outside of the United States – Bangladesh, Chile, Australia and India.

The plan calls for eight fellows to be staffed at the facility in the next 24 months, said Sam Williams, chair of Envision’s board.

In the next 24 months, the facility will play host to 10 research fellows from across the globe.

“There’s quite a diversity, and they bring the perspective of their home countries to these problems,” Walker said. “The idea is to shape them and launch them into research careers with this knowledge of what’s really meaningful in (blind and visually impaired research) in the hopes their careers will continue along that trajectory, maybe even with us.”

The fellows in Envision’s program are currently working on projects that will be presented at national conventions and eventually may make it into scientific journals.

Perhaps the most unique thing about the Envision institute, Walker says, is that it bridges the gap between research and practical application. At Envision, as opposed to an academic setting, clinicians work with patients every day, and low-vision individuals are employed by Envision itself.

“All the problems are sitting right here,” Walker said. “All the people who have been solving them for years on the ground have the opportunity to share their knowledge and use the scientific method to evaluate their approaches, and in many cases, we hope, make them even better.”

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, who spoke at the event Thursday, said the opening of the research institute will add needed “intellectual capital” to the region.

“You’ve got a global-quality research institute and that’s something that attracts,” he said. “Envision itself has been a tremendous asset for the state, the region and the world. … This really jumps the game up for them.”

For more information on the Envision Research Institute, and to see what projects its fellows are currently working on, visit www.envisionus.com/Research-Continuing-Education/Envision-Research-Institute.

Matt Riedl: 316-268-6660, @RiedlMatt

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