16 Tech district could help slow Indiana’s brain drain, panel says

Indiana's brain drain of science and engineering graduates could be slowed through the development of a 60-acre innovation and entrepreneurship district on the near-northwest side known as 16 Tech, a panel of experts said Friday.

While graduates are leaving the state, jobs in health care and life sciences in Indiana are booming, and employers are often searching high and low for talent.

But the development of 16 Tech, a work-play-live district that will feature research labs, apartments and bicycle trails, could help persuade more young scientists and engineers to stay in Indiana after graduation.

That was the consensus of a panel at Friday morning's IBJ Life Sciences Power Breakfast, which discussed issues involving talent, venture capital, regulation and collaboration.

The first development phase of the district, which is located along Indiana Avenue, between 10th and 16th streets, will begin this fall. Plans call for two new office and research buildings, a new apartment complex with 250 units and the renovation of existing office and warehouse space.

“If we succeed in building a unique ecosystem, and not just copying what has been done in Boston, I think we can attract the right talent here,” said Rainer Fischer, CEO of the Indiana Biosciences Research Institute, which will be the district's anchor tenant and aims to spur collaboration among universities and industry. “The key is working together and not working in silos and I think we can make it happen.”

Only 33 percent of in-state college biology students remain in Indiana after graduation, along with just 38 percent of engineering students, 49 percent of computer and information science students, and 60 percent of health care students, according to a 2016 report by BioCrossroads, an Indiana-based life sciences business development group.

Philip Low, a chemistry professor at Purdue University who has helped start four biotech companies, said fewer than 25 percent of his students stay in Indiana after graduation.

“So creating a more vibrant industry here in Indiana is important, and I think (16 Tech) will help do that,” Low said. “It will certainly enhance our ability to retain students.”

The Indiana University School of Medicine is planning to move dozens of researchers into 16 Tech once the district’s first building is up and running, said Dr. Anantha Shekhar, director of the school’s Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute.

“We traditionally have had researchers in the academic environment that do great research, but they’re surrounded by academic colleagues, they’re surrounded by the usual university type of environment,” Shekhar said. “This would be a very different kind of approach, and they would be surrounded by entrepreneurs, by large and small biotech companies. So it would be great for them to be exposed to that kind of environment.”

Bob Coy, president and CEO of 16 Tech, cautioned that the district won’t be a “silver bullet” for reversing the brain drain. But he said it could become a signature location, on par with Kendall Square in Boston or Tech Square in Atlanta, that could be a big selling point for central Indiana.

“In the end, young people will go where the jobs are,” Coy said.

Already, Indiana is succeeding in attracting more science, engineering and tech workers than it was a decade ago, said Kristin Eilenberg, founder and CEO of Lodestone Logic, an Indianapolis consulting firm.

“The tech sector is creating amazing kinds of jobs,” she said. “It’s bringing in software engineers, it’s bringing in web designers. It’s bringing in different types of talent that ultimately will influence the life sciences sector.”

Dan Peterson, vice president for industry and government affairs for Cook Group in Bloomington, warned that no single development or company will reverse the brain drain single-handedly. He echoed Coy’s comment that there is no silver bullet, and the huge challenge will require the region to work together.

“The opportunities are huge but I think we need silver buckshot, not a silver bullet,” Peterson said. “Part of it is we just need to build these different aspects that draw different populations of employees, not just the young talent coming out of the universities, but to attract from outside the state, there has to be more. We have to tell our story better.”

16 Tech Community Corp.'s goal is to transform the aging business district just north of the IU School of Medicine from a collection of older buildings into a densely developed site with apartments, restaurants and retail space.

Long-term plans call for more than 1 million square feet of incubator and start-up space for new companies, along with wet labs, meeting halls and space for related businesses, such as places where startups can develop prototypes of their inventions.

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