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UO spreads vision of life sciences research center

November 3, 2017 GMT

The University of Oregon’s reputation and Eugene’s economy will be enhanced by the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact, area business leaders were told Thursday.

The UO last week presented the public with the first look at drawings of the four-story complex that will make up the Knight campus on Franklin Boulevard. Groundbreaking on a 160,000-square-foot building is scheduled for February; the first researchers are expected to move into the complex in 2020.

Chris Edwards, the UO’s vice president of strategic initiatives, told members of the Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce that the complex will give the UO a way to attract the world’s brightest students and faculty. The life sciences research conducted in the Knight campus will lead to health and other innovations, and benefit the local economy, Edwards said to 400 people at the Hilton Eugene.

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Equipped with the latest scientific instruments, the complex will enable researchers to study such life sciences as biochemistry, molecular biology, neuroscience and genomics, he said. Such research could lead to private spin-off firms in Eugene that produce new drugs, medical devices and diagnostic tools and services, Edwards said.

“The buildings will be integral to our success, but it’s about so much more than the buildings,” he said. “It’s about the people, the students, the researchers, the programs.”

The complex will have an “intentionally integrated approach to science that will be engaged with the private sector and promote entrepreneurial ventures to take innovation out into society, where it will have a positive impact,” Edwards said. “That will be the long-term legacy of the Knight campus.”

Edwards gave the keynote speech at the Chamber’s 2017 Economic Summit, a three-hour event that included talks by public officials and business executives.

A year ago, Nike co-founder and UO graduate Phil Knight and his wife, Penny, committed to donating $500 million to the UO to pay for half of the projected $1 billion campus that is meant to spur science innovation.

The university has expanded its real estate holdings between Franklin Boulevard and the Eugene Millrace during the past year for the Knight campus, which will replace office buildings and restaurants. The complex will be connected to the main campus with a sky bridge over Franklin Boulevard.

If the university raises $1 billion, the campus would employ about 750 people, including support staff, and generate about $79 million in annual economic impact to the Eugene-Springfield area, according to the research firm, ECONorthwest.

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In his speech, Edwards thanked state legislators for helping secure $50 million in state bonds for the project in the current two-year budget cycle and their pledge to support another $50 million in the next biennium.

The UO also is looking for money from private donors for the campus.

Edwards said top universities are known for their medical or engineering schools, which attract federal research dollars to the institutions. The UO has a top ranked teacher’s college, he said, but the Knight campus will attract more federal research dollars to the university and burnish its reputation.

“Prior to now, we’ve just been missing that one element — that platform,” Edwards said. “… Those beautiful buildings, the Knight Campus For Accelerating Scientific Impact is that platform.”

Edwards is a former state senator from Eugene who left the Legislature last fall to work for the university. He said he has spent the past four months conducting research on how different universities with robust research programs “engage with the private sector.”

He said he visited with people at or from several universities and business incubators to see what types of approaches worked, “and what we might consider.” He talked with experts who advise new companies and people who invest in new firms, also called angel investors.

Boston, Philadelphia, San Diego and the San Francisco Bay Area are major life sciences hubs, Edwards said.

Some people may doubt that the UO and Eugene could compete with those areas to attract investment, but “it’s not like those places have an exclusive on innovation,” he said.

Based on his discussions with out-of-state investors, Edwards said, venture capitalists would look favorably on a chance to invest in Eugene companies.

Oregon is an appealing place, and with a relatively lower cost of doing business, investors dollars and research grants would go farther in Eugene than in San Francisco and other big cities, he said.

But a successful Knight campus with spin-off benefits to Eugene and Springfield won’t happen “without a lot of hard work by those of us in this room,” Edwards said.

Follow Ed Russo on Twitter @edwardrusso . Email ed.russo@registerguard.com .