Posted by: Nancy | April 9, 2009

Collaborative KC

I had the good fortune to hear Dr. William Duncan, president and chief executive of the Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute, speaking at a meeting yesterday. He was talking to job seekers, professionals who were interested in learning more about the growing life sciences industry here.

The institute is the focal point in the region’s goal to attract and develop the area as a bioscience and biotechnology center of excellence, developing on the natural strengths of the region, which include the clinical research firms based here, the depth and breadth of animal health firms here (five of the top 10 companies have headquarters here, 31 percent of global revenues come from this region).

My favorite part of the discussion was his recollection of the development of the institute, which was founded in 1999, a result of engagement between the Stowers Institute, the Civic Council and the Kansas City Area Development Council (and others).

Early on, the group noted that despite the available assets, the region lacked a major top-tier biomedical life sciences university. The answer, it turned out, was to fill the gap with a collaborative effort between the existing players: the KU Med Center, St. Luke’s Hospital, UMKC, Midwest Research Institute and others.

Dr. Duncan described how the various leaders were not accustomed to working together.

“In the early days, it was difficult to get them to come to meetings,” he said. “But now, the culture has changed and there is a willingness to collaborate.”

So powerful, this collaboration.

In this case, Duncan attributed the collaboration success to a couple of key factors:

  • It developed with an empowered board of leaders who set the tone. It wasn’t driven by a single institute, but by many who saw the power in building something greater than could be developed independently.
  • It engaged the entire community — both sides of the state line, regional agencies and groups, government, civic groups, business leaders, academia and interested members of the community.  People were able to set aside differences (yes, border wars and deep university allegiances) and focus on building something together.

It was inclusive and that crowning philosophy was a key to the collaboration and to the early success of the region’s development — now home to more than 300 life sciences companies.

But Dr. Duncan had a caution — an additional culture change is needed here.  He described an attitude common on the East and West coasts, where a failed entrepreneur is hailed as a hero. In places like San Francisco and Boston, these types are respected and encouraged, he noted, but here, there’s a tendency to just look at the label: failure.

“We need a culture change in KC,” he said. “We need to accept failure and embrace risk.”

He is not talking about admitting defeat or taking wild risks — he’s talking about driving a change in the prevailing business attitudes here, one that would make us more open to learning from mis-steps and supporting measured risk.  Collectively. Inclusively.

Although Dr. Duncan also spoke with passion about challenges of  technical bioresearch, complex investment/profitability strategies and difficult political scenarios — this was my favorite part of the discussion.   He was just talking about how people deal with each other.

So much of our success with any initiative comes down to how folks can best work together: collaborate, look beyond a label, work toward something bigger than yourself.

I can’t help but wonder if these culture changes might be the most difficult part of Dr. Duncan’s job.

I can’t help but believe that embracing these culture changes might be more even valuable to our region than the life sciences initiative that launched them.

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