ISU president envisions biotech hub in Iowa

“The potential here is unlimited,” Leath told Gov. Terry Branstad

Iowa State University president Steven Leath on Monday, Feb. 6, 2012, in Ames, Iowa. (SourceMedia Group News/Jim Slosiar
Iowa State University president Steven Leath on Monday, Feb. 6, 2012, in Ames, Iowa. (SourceMedia Group News/Jim Slosiarek)

DES MOINES – Iowa State University President Steven Leath – a player in the development of North Carolina’s successful research triangle park -- told a state economic progress board Tuesday that Iowa is positioned to seize a similar leadership role in agricultural bio-tech and bio-science with the right long-term vision and a public-private partnership to back it.

“The potential here is unlimited,” Leath told Gov. Terry Branstad and other members of the Iowa Partnership for Economic Progress. “We can probably go anywhere we want now competitively and I’m really excited about that.”

Leath, who previously served as vice president of research and sponsored programs for the 16-campus University of North Carolina system -- where he helped guide the creation of the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis, a public-private venture that promotes advancements in biotechnology, nutrition and health – said the success there took years to build but once the right elements and infrastructure were assembled the project grew to more than 40,000 high-paying jobs.

“It took a number of years to really generate 40,000 jobs and hit its stride,” Leath said. “When they started, they had nothing. They had basically a pine forest and poor roads.”

The ISU president said he envisions the same thing happening at his Ames campus if researchers, government officials, private-sector leaders can collaborate on a long-term vision that will attract strategic investment and make possible the infrastructure and “human capital” to put Iowa at the cutting edge of ag-related innovations that will translate into economic developments, jobs and other growth opportunities.

As a starting point, Leath said he is meeting with a broad cross-section of leaders with an interest in Iowa’s growth potential. He also plans to embark on an effort to hire new faculty members in “trust areas” of agricultural biotech, bioscience, advanced manufacturing, engineering, and other material sciences – roughly 200 new faculty in the next 18 months and probably push that number to 300 over 2 ½ years.

“Right now we’re kind of in a sweet spot. This is the right time to go looking out for talent,” he said, noting that economic uncertainty has made it possible to recruit high-level researchers and faculty that Debi Durham, director of the state Economic Development Authority, hoped would begin building the talent pool that Iowa currently lacks to draw projects and investors to the state. Leath said he hopes to lay out his long-term vision for a central corridor project when he is installed as ISU president in September.

Cedar Rapids board member Tom Aller of Alliant Energy and Interstate Power and Light Co. said he believed a research triangle initiative would “capture the attention of Iowans” but it would have to be more than just another economic development idea – it would have to be a vision and a goal that’s sustainable and that Iowans can embrace.

“I think Iowa is starving for a big vision,” Durham said. “People are so hungry for this. The appetite is there and they get it.She said state officials are in the process of “rebranding” Iowa nationally and globally as an innovative state where talented people will want to locate to be a part of the growth potential in biosciences and advanced manufacturing. She said private and public investment to build the necessary infrastructure also will be critical pieces if Iowa is to accomplish something bold.