Innovation districts are topic of global meeting in Buffalo

About 200 leaders from medical campuses, science centers and research parks across the United States and around the world will stream into downtown Buffalo this week for the annual conference for their trade group.

For the members of the Association of University Research Parks, it’s a chance to share best practices with their peers, to catch up on trends in the biotech and life sciences industries and to build connections that could pay off with new investments at their home medical centers.

For the people who run the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, it’s an opportunity to show to an international audience the biomedical research, clinical care and community outreach taking place in the city’s medical corridor, and throughout Buffalo.

“I want people to see that our city is shining right now, headed in the right direction, because of lots of different parts doing great things,” said Matthew K. Enstice, president and CEO of the organization that oversees the Medical Campus, where total new investment will reach a cumulative $1.4 billion by 2017.

The research parks conference is coming to Buffalo as the idea of what a medical campus is – and, more importantly, what it should be – evolves. Leaders no longer want to think of campuses as isolated centers walled off from the rest of their communities. In fact, experts use the term “innovation districts” to describe the broader engagement and rehabilitation role the campuses can have in their urban neighborhoods.
It’s as if people are remembering why cities existed in the first place, said Bruce Katz, director of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, who will speak at the conference in Buffalo and who has studied Buffalo’s economy.

“Authenticity really matters. A place like Buffalo, you know you’re in Buffalo. It has a special vibe. It has a special feel. You want to play on that – it has a market value,” said Katz, who is co-author of the Brookings report, “The Rise of Innovation Districts.”

Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus officials say they’ve positioned the campus for years as a broader innovation district. They say they look forward to showing their peers how they try to make sure nearby residents benefit from campus investment.

“It’s what we’ve been doing for 10 years,” Enstice said.

The association that is coming to Buffalo this week represents American and international medical, science and research centers with ties to universities and colleges. Its annual conferences aren’t large, but hosting one is considered prestigious.

Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus officials had to work hard to convince association board members to come to Buffalo. Enstice, who worked with Patrick J. Whalen, the campus’ chief operating officer, and Kari Bonaro, its chief spokeswoman, to sell the association on the conference, said Buffalo and its Medical Campus weren’t taken seriously at the first research parks conferences he attended.
But the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus team was persistent.

Eileen Walker, the CEO of the research parks association, said the group, based in Tucson, Ariz., is looking forward to seeing what’s happening in Buffalo because science centers and medical campuses are collaborative, not competitive.

“It’s like the tide that’s going to lift all the boats. Everybody gets ideas from one another. It’s an idea exchange,” Walker said.

The visitors attending this week’s conference will see construction cranes towering over a medical campus on the northern edge of downtown Buffalo that has undergone a massive transformation since 2002. The University at Buffalo, Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Kaleida Health and Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute all have built or are building clinical, research and academic buildings on the campus. Startup activity also abounds on the campus.

Total employment on the campus is expected to rise from 7,000 in 2002 to 17,000 in 2017 and total building space will double from 4.5 million square feet in 2002 to 9 million square feet in 2017.
Enstice and other Medical Campus officials say the Fruit Belt and Allentown neighborhoods are beginning to feel the spinoff effects of that growth, but more work remains.

It reflects a rethinking of what a science center, or a technology campus, is, Brookings’ Katz said. Fifty years ago, he said, it was the suburban campus of a technology company, a collection of office buildings surrounded by a sea of parking lots and some green space, while the medical district of the 1970s was a high-walled fortress.

Today, urban hospitals, universities, corporate pharma headquarters and startup companies are joining forces to form vibrant, interactive campuses where physicians, scientists and entrepreneurs can engage and create.
“It’s essentially innovation in a classic urban setting, where city-ness, frankly, all the things that make cities distinctive, become part of the innovative process,” Katz said.

That’s all part of this week’s discussion at the conference, which kicks off with events for the association’s board members on Tuesday. It begins for all of its registered attendees Wednesday and runs through Friday.