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A recent explosion of "innovation" campuses -- many in the Midwest and almost all involving fancy new buildings and partnerships between public colleges and private corporations – have ironically un-innovative names.

Public research universities have long had ties to state industries, and technology transfer is widespread in higher education. But of late, some colleges are concentrating these efforts on so-called innovation campuses. There’s Kansas State University’s Olathe Innovation Campus, which was funded with a county sales tax and built on land donated by a municipality in the Kansas City suburbs. Just across the state line sits Missouri Innovation Campus, which is being built by the University of Central Missouri and has the enthusiastic support of Democratic Governor Jay Nixon.

Nebraska Innovation Campus is under construction on the former state fairgrounds in Lincoln. One state away is South Dakota State University’s Innovation Campus. In Ohio, there’s Akron Innovation Campus.

Even the Aussies are getting in on the fun. The University of Wollongong is home to its own Innovation Campus.

The campuses differ in specialty, size and scope. But the intentional cohabitation of academics and industry is key to all of them, something university leaders say made the ambitious and expensive projects palatable to legislators and voters even as the economy and higher ed appropriations shrunk. Kansas State opened the first building on its 38 acres of prime suburban real estate last spring. The International Animal Health and Food Safety Institute was designed to bring K-State’s research expertise in those fields to business leaders in Kansas City.

Olathe campus president and CEO Dan Richardson said the university’s main location in Manhattan, in a rural region about two hours west of Kansas City, does a great job of research and does what it can to partner with companies and a nearby Army fort.

But the opportunities to build relationships with industry are much greater in a major city than a college town of 50,000 people, he said. The new campus will also offer graduate programs, partner with local K-12 schools and provide non-degree courses on food handling and other topics.

The eventual goal is to incubate new ideas in the first building with the flexibility to expand those ideas into their own structures as they grow. “We’re not dependent on a dollar amount with industry, per se,” Richardson said. “We see that as coming with long-term relationships. We’ll really be working with things that have commercial viability.”

That same focus is behind the University of Akron’s Innovation Campus, President Luis Proenza said. The innovation center was born in 2007 after the public institution bought a pair of empty office buildings near its main campus. The goal was to expand Akron’s long-standing relationship with northern Ohio industries and create a way for faculty members to match their ideas with corporations. “We can’t just do licensing and commercialization and the occasional start-up,” Proenza said. “Rather, we need to engage with the economy in every conceivable way.”

Akron's innovation campus encourages so-called “angel” investors, which allowed 23-year-old student Courtney Gras to start an energy storage company that made her a finalist for a $100,000 prize from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Buying pre-existing buildings allowed Akron to start on research right away, with a number of polymer labs moving in and working with professors and students to translate academic research into commercial products. It also helped avoid price tags that on other campuses run into the dozens of millions.

But most innovation campuses are almost entirely new construction. South Dakota State’s innovation campus, hailed by the university as the state’s first research park, opened a 28,000-square foot building in 2010 and has the capacity to expand. The new construction is near the college's main campus in Brookings.

The University of Nebraska at Lincoln acquired the state’s old fairgrounds after the sheep and pigs left town in 2009. The state unicameral allocated $25 million for construction last year and promised another $15 million to match private donations.

The university will renovate some old state fair buildings and replace others to form a public-private technology park. It is designed to eventually have 2 million square feet of space. Developers hope to have 500,000 of those feet in use by 2016.

While the project received legislative approval, it wasn't without controversy. Transferring the land to the university required moving the state fair out of Lincoln, where it had been since 1901, and plans to tear down one fair building mobilized the preservationist community until the college agreed to renovate rather than raze the old Industrial Arts Building. Others questioned whether building a new campus was appropriate during tough financial times.

Of course, the idea of research parks isn’t new. But Robin Rasor, president of the Association of University Technology Managers, said the recent construction projects show an increased willingness of colleges to draw on their own specialties and connect with their state's businesses. “What you’re seeing is evidence of universities across the country being as creative as they possibly can, recognizing the needs of their own particular regions and their university strengths and just going with it,” she said.

The campuses are an especially natural fit at land-grant institutions, Rasor said, which are charged with supporting their state’s agricultural and industrial efforts. Kansas State, Nebraska and South Dakota State are land-grant universities.

Innovation campuses have also proven popular with taxpayers and lawmakers at a time when many education budgets are being slashed. During the height of the financial crisis in 2008, county voters approved a non-expiring sales tax to benefit the new K-State campus and two nearby University of Kansas projects.

The idea of companies working with public institutions resonated with voters, K-State’s Richardson said. More broadly, he sees the region’s innovation campuses as part of a collective desire to catch up with similar partnerships on the coasts. “In the past, we’ve been more or less siloed,” he said. “Industry waits and gets something thrown in its lap from academe, and there’s been no conversation. You’re starting to see it shake out to people doing what their strengths are. Industry is good at commercializing, academe’s not. Industry is good at discovery, but it would be good if it could be guided.”

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