Amid tight budget, UM System moves forward with $220 million research facility

The University of Missouri System for the first time Wednesday unveiled detailed plans for the $220 million Translational Precision Medicine Complex to the broad university community.

The TPMC — a name likely to change soon — is meant to elevate UM’s cancer, vascular and neurological research to an international level and foster patents, technological innovation and patient-specific treatment.

All the pieces haven’t fallen into place yet — notably, funding for what is supposed to be the biggest research facility investment in university history — but UM System President Mun Choi and other project leaders told 150 faculty and other attendees that the project is moving forward, no matter what.

As it stands, the facility has a guaranteed $50 million one-time funding pledge from the system. A matching $50 million will come from MU — $25 million from strategic campus funds, or funds held for contingency and investment purposes; and the other $25 million from the colleges and schools that will directly benefit from the facility, spokeswoman Liz McCune said later Wednesday.

“There is not a more exciting opportunity for bringing the best minds together from all over Missouri to solve a problem that is national in scope,” Choi told the gathering.

Trying to pay for the TPMC

Securing all $220 million is a major task for a university that has struggled to garner state support in recent years, especially after the protests of fall 2015, which Choi acknowledged put initial TPMC planning on hold before new leadership, including himself, stepped in.

Gov. Mike Parson proposed in his January State of the State address allocating $1 million for the TPMC as a line-item in his budget.

“We all know that that is not enough,” Choi said.

The UM System had originally said it wanted to collect $50 million to $75 million from the state. To try to bridge the gap, Choi said, administrators will spend the next six months working with state legislators and the governor’s office to “really talk about the exciting breakthroughs we’re going to have and differences we can make in the lives of Missourians.”

The goal: Secure $5 million from the state per year for the next five to seven years.

The system also hopes the federal government will allow Truman Veterans Hospital to contribute $50 million in exchange for lab space in the facility. Choi said university leadership has made a special request to the White House and is awaiting authorization.

The White House has already played a role in the TPMC’s grand vision to become an international leader in precision medicine. Former Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin has said UM crystallized the decision to make precision medicine the facility’s focus after President Obama announced a Precision Medicine Initiative in his 2015 State of the Union address.

Philanthropy will also play a vital role in bringing the TPMC to fruition. Robert Driver, assistant vice chancellor for university advancement, said an outside consulting firm concluded $75 million in donor support might be a stretch but is “very well doable.”

About $4.3 million from 28 corporations and 77 individual donors has been secured thus far, Driver said. The university projects an additional $16 million in gifts over the next six months.

It’s a ‘fast-tracked project’

Despite a treacherous funding landscape, the UM System plans to advance the project, full throttle. This includes a groundbreaking ceremony in June or July, Choi said.

Rich McKown, project manager and director of health care projects for the facility’s architect, Kansas City-based Burns & McDonnell, described the TPMC as a “fast-tracked project.” The firm has held more than 200 meetings in recent months to gather information for the concept designs unveiled Wednesday, he said.

Although Burns & McDonnell is working on an “aggressive schedule and fairly tight budget,” McKown said the TPMC “has the most comprehensive space for all these functions” of the dozens of similar facilities he’s helped design and develop.

The five-story building, scheduled to open Oct. 19, 2021, will house imaging equipment, a vivarium, microscopy technology, interdisciplinary research space and an innovation tower for 60 principal research investigators and industry partnerships.

Funding for the 30 faculty who will be hired in coming years for the facility isn’t included in the $220 million budget, Choi said. In an interview, MU Chancellor Alexander Cartwright said the university is making a “concerted effort” in its hiring of those faculty, a process which has already started. Separate from the TPMC, the university hires about 60 faculty a year, he said.

Potential partnerships with industry leaders and health care startups are expected to bring an economic boon to MU, the UM System and the state. Investments of $100,000 to $250,000 each will be made to promising startups in the health care sector, said Bill Turpin, interim associate vice chancellor for economic development.

Collaboration to help patient care

Given the nature of the TPMC’s scope, financially and resource-wise, the system won’t be able to support every project university faculty want to pursue, Choi said. The TPMC isn’t meant to lead to the creation of more research articles and citations, though.

“The goal for this is improving health care for Missouri and beyond,” he said.

Choi and other university leaders, including Mark McIntosh, system vice president of research, have charged about 45 system faculty with crafting specific research plans.

Representatives from each of the project’s three working groups gave attendees insight into how current research will reach the next level thanks to the TPMC.

Jeffrey Bryan, an MU veterinary medicine professor and chair of the cancer working group, said cancer is a leading cause of death in the state.

“Cancer immunology is the buzzword we are all reading about in the news every day,” Bryan said.

Bryan’s team, like the other two groups, is working to find ways to synthesize disparate research across the system so that research collaboration in the TPMC can deliver exactly what a patient needs.

Research collaboration will mostly come from medical and engineering researchers, but Cartwright said faculty in the humanities will also be involved.

Cartwright said health care can be more efficient when coupled with various areas of the arts and humanities, such as music.

“The more involvement, the better,” Cartwright said.

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