Opinion Columns & Blogs

Building a health-innovation ecosystem in Wichita

One of Wichita’s widely recognized challenges in this century is to diversify its business base beyond the aircraft industry. The best way to do that may lie in adapting some of the technologies used in that industry and others to new industries.

Could one of those new sectors be health care innovation? That’s the question that multiple presenters – entrepreneurs, university and health care innovators – will attempt to answer at a summit to be held June 1 at the Kansas Leadership Center, funded by the Kansas Health Foundation.

Admittedly, Wichita is not home now to a pharmaceutical or medical device industry. But we do have aircraft technologies such as those involving composite materials that could be applied to medical devices. Ditto with sensor and other biomedical research at Wichita State University, as well as the aircraft testing facilities at the National Institute for Aviation Research at WSU, whose techniques could be applied, with the aid of certain software, to certain medical procedures and advances.

Wichita also has a skilled manufacturing workforce, Wichita Area Technical College that is augmenting it, an expanding branch of the University of Kansas medical school and many entrepreneurial physicians, and is a low-cost location. In combination, these factors could be harnessed to develop more cutting-edge health care services and products.

A critical challenge for many of the innovations to be showcased at the June 1 summit will be to refine them in such a way that they can be commercialized. Ideally, this would be accomplished through the construction of additional facilities and the creation of more high-paying jobs in construction and in new health firms. But even if the new technologies are simply licensed to larger companies, the additional income accruing to the individual innovators and to the university (for professor-originated ideas) would be welcome.

To be sure, we are not nor likely soon to be Pittsburgh, Pa., which has replaced its steel mills and nuclear construction businesses with a huge and widely admired education-medical complex, anchored by two leading universities (Carnegie-Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh) and the giant University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, with 60,000 employees.

But we too have good universities, and each plays an important role in our city. I have written extensively about WSU, its excellent engineering and music programs, its 15,000 students (on the way to 20,000 or more), and its exciting Innovation Campus initiative. Newman University, with outstanding science and nursing programs, also has a superb record placing its pre-med graduates into medical school. Friends University is a first-class liberal arts college.

Meanwhile, our two large clinical hospital networks, Via Christi Health and Wesley Medical Center, are each part of large, well-recognized national health care organizations. Not only are the two networks large employers – with more than 8,000 health care professionals combined in the Wichita area – but they, and other clinical practices and specialty surgery centers here, also are well-positioned to be test beds for future health-related innovations that are developed here.

So, if you want to see an emerging health care innovation ecosystem in the making in our own backyard, register for the June 1 summit at HealthcareInnovationForum.com. Act fast before the room fills up – and get a firsthand look at how Wichita is changing.

Robert Litan, a Wichita-based attorney-economist, is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Twitter: @BobLitan.