While not all Kansas Citians celebrate the city’s reputation as a cowtown, the Animal Health Corridor shows there are benefits to embracing those roots.
Long before the metro could boast the headquarters of international law firms, tax service companies, creative groups or entrepreneurially-minded foundations, Kansas City flourished in the boom of the nation’s livestock industry. This was a city built on the stockyards, where at one point in the early 1920s, a full 2,631,808 heads of cattle were counted in the West Bottoms. By the 1940s, Kansas City’s cattle operation was second only to Chicago’s Union Stockyards, and its horse and mule market was regarded as the best in the nation.
Although the city’s commercial roots are firmly planted in the region’s fertile agricultural heritage, Kansas Citians have been fighting off a “cowtown” reputation ever since. Flash forward 70 years, and Kansas City is still known for its barbecue and KC strip steaks but a growing reputation for innovation and entrepreneurship has also flourished.
Sometimes being a cowtown in the heart of fly-over country has its benefits.
Thriving Animal Health Corridor
Since the stockyards opened in 1871, the regional animal health industry has grown organically alongside the region’s livestock commerce. Thousands of heads of cattle, hogs and horses living in close proximity created a need for vaccinations and veterinary services and over time, companies sprang up to serve the needs of the city’s livestock capital.
More than 100 years later, in 2005, a review of the Kansas City metro area’s biosciences industry uncovered a still-growing animal health sector. Located within the geographic boundaries of the majority of its target customer base, this thriving cluster of companies seemed to offer a new angle of economic development for the region. In the wake of the review, a number of key economic development players, including the Kansas City Area Development Council (KCADC), launched a grassroots effort to encourage growth in the animal health sector and to redefine Kansas City’s cowtown image.
The effort initiated with a 2006 study conducted by Brakke Consulting, a leading animal health consulting firm commissioned by the KCADC to characterize the animal health industry in the Kansas City region. It yielded unexpected results. It revealed that the area between the cities of Manhattan, Kan., Columbia, Mo. and St. Joseph, Mo. has the world’s largest concentration of animal health industry assets. In total, the region generated 32 percent of global industry sales in animal health.
The region, then branded as the KC Animal Health Corridor, fell under the guidance of a collaborative initiative led by three of Kansas City’s largest civic organizations. The KCADC agreed to handle day-to-day operations, marketing, branding and recruitment, while the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce would serve as the Corridor’s legislative advocate and the Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute (KCALSI) would facilitate scientific collaboration and research between the region’s universities and private sector companies.
There was just one catch: Although Kansas City’s animal health sector was thriving, no one knew about it.
“We faced a challenge of awareness,” Robert Marcusse, president and CEO of the KCADC. “We have had a tremendous amount of animal health companies in the Kansas City area for a long time, but they were kind of below the radar. In the industry, it was well known, but in the greater Kansas City region, we needed to raise awareness in the business and legislative community that we have this huge concentration and that it was an asset we could build on.”
Awareness Initiative Pays Off
In order to combat the challenge of awareness, the trio of civic organizations produced a robust platform of events focused on animal health and initiative programs designed to raise awareness about the region’s unique cluster and to support the growth of existing animal health companies. Networking events launched to foster collaboration between private sector companies. Specialized education and training programs helped create a workforce capable of answering the region’s employment needs. Collaborative research linked like-minded innovators and business relocation assistance aided in outside recruitment efforts. Legislative activism paired with specialized tax and incentive programs made building an animal health company in Kansas City economically feasible.
Since the official launch of the initiative seven years ago, the Corridor has grown to generate one-third of the global animal health industry’s $19 billion in sales. The Corridor now contains more than 220 animal health-related businesses and employs more than 20,000 people. More than 100 animal health companies from around the world have evaluated the region as a possible site for relocation or expansion, and 25 of them have been successfully recruited or expanded in the Corridor.
One such recruitment success is Chris Ragland, CEO of Animalytix, an animal health market insight business with headquarters in Salisbury, Maryland. After experiencing the Corridor first-hand as head of the commercial business for Intervet, Ragland was impressed by the region’s access to high-caliber employees and affordable operating costs.
Upon leaving Intervet in 2008, Ragland launched Animalytix and two other companies, Axxiom, a consulting practice, and ATS Animal Health Training Solutions. Although Ragland is based in Maryland, the Corridor’s proximity to his business’s customers proved undeniably attractive.
“We made the decision last year  that all three of those businesses should have a presence in the KC Corridor because it is the most heavily concentrated and best organized animal health region in the country,” Ragland says.
Animalytix and Axxiom now operate second offices within the Corridor, and ATS Animal Health Training Solutions will open a 4,200-square-foot training facility at 12200 Northwest Ambassador Drive, a six-story office building located near the Kansas City International Airport.
“We wanted some place that was easy to access and centrally located in the country,” Ragland says. “We wanted some place that was close in proximity to clients where they could drive in, and Kansas City was the only location that fit those criteria.”