SLU aims to double research budget as it transforms under new leaders

St. Louis already has one pre-eminent research university — and it’s not the one located on Grand Boulevard.

Ken Olliff wants that to change.

“St. Louis needs two great research universities,” says the recently hired vice president for research at St. Louis University.

Olliff is in charge of SLU’s campaign to build itself into one of them, with the ultimate goal of positioning the soon-to-be 200-year-old institution as one of the world’s premier Jesuit research universities.

Step one: Double SLU’s research budget to $100 million over the next five years.

An institution of SLU’s size and with the array of schools and programs it operates should “easily” be within that range of research funding, SLU President Fred Pestello told the Post-Dispatch.

“I think we should be doing better than we have been,” he said.

The ambitious goal is one of a handful of big-ticket initiatives from the region’s namesake university, which is undergoing a significant change under new leadership that began with Pestello’s hiring three years ago.

Olliff called it a “transformational” moment in SLU’s history.

Pestello and his staff have been forced to re-evaluate the university’s budget, which led to a round of layoffs earlier this year. But there’s also the new partnership with health care provider SSM Health and the planned $550 million new St. Louis University Hospital. SLU aims to guide development around its campus using its new redevelopment arm, pushing the momentum of the Central West End and the Cortex innovation district further east.

“There is an amazing amount of activity taking place here,” Pestello said. “But I think that’s good for SLU and good for the region.”

The St. Louis region’s efforts to reinvent itself as hub for biotechnology, plant science and other high-tech industries depends in no small part on its research institutions and the scientists they employ.

When it comes to medical research and scientific funding, Washington University is the region’s 900-pound gorilla, with over $600 million in research support in 2015. But SLU, just on the other side of the bustling Cortex innovation district, believes it can focus on its strengths and build itself into a far more significant player in the region’s research community.

“SLU really has tremendous potential to it,” Olliff said. “So what I’m really doing is acting as a catalyst to light a fire under the entity. … We can set the wheels in motion and build a different kind of research university.”

Olliff started as SLU’s vice president for research a year ago after SLU hired him away from a similar position at the University of Chicago. Pestello said the university is “completely restructuring the research office so it better supports the faculty” and that Olliff’s hiring was meant to “demonstrate our seriousness.”

Olliff has been working behind the scenes since then to help identify niches where SLU can excel and streamlining the university’s technology transfer programs that govern research commercialization, which he said many people were “frustrated” with.

Olliff also has a guest seat on the board directors of Cortex, the tech district that SLU helped form with Washington University, BJC HealthCare, the University of Missouri-St. Louis and the Missouri Botanical Garden.

To help revamp its commercialization practices, Olliff’s office has formed a “Research Innovation Group” and located it in newly leased office space within the Cortex district.

Cortex President and CEO Dennis Lower said SLU is trying to forge closer ties with the technology district.

“More and more blue chip faculty and students want to have an opportunity to engage in commercializing research and interning in startup companies,” Lower said.

He lauded SLU’s commitment to boost its overall research budget.

“I’m thrilled that SLU is really doubling down to position itself as a stronger national and international institution,” Lower said. “I think it elevates St. Louis.”

A strategic review is ongoing to identify areas where SLU should focus, but Olliff pointed to its geospatial and cyber research. , even more important now that the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency has committed to building a new headquarters in the city Beyond the natural sciences, Olliff pointed to SLU’s scholarship in urban issues, such as poverty, recidivism and planning.

Of course, the SLU School of Medicine, which accounts for about 80 percent of its current research funding now, will play a lead role in the university’s research efforts. Enhancing the medical school’s research activities means growing the number of successful researchers, said Kevin Behrns, the medical school dean.

“We’re also really looking to expand our health delivery research and have a really great opportunity with the new partnership with SSM,” he said.

The medical school was put on probation in March by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education, which Behrns acknowledged won’t make recruiting top-notch faculty any easier. But he and Pestello expect to win back reaccreditation within the next 18 months, a process focused mainly on filling curriculum gaps.

“I don’t think it should be much of a distraction,” he said. “We have an excellent team working on our remediation efforts.”

Dr. Daniel Hoft thinks the university’s commitment to grow research bodes well for the medical school’s vaccine development unit, one of the university’s research strengths.

“There are lots of efforts afoot to increase the numbers of faculty that are experienced in writing (National Institutes of Health)-type grant proposals or other extramural funding awards,” Hoft said.

Beyond hiring more faculty, Hoft sees reaching across disciplines to other researchers as a way to go after larger project funding sources.

SLU’s new leaders “are all very pro research and want to try to bring SLU up to the next level,” Hoft said. “That certainly is something that is very exciting to the researchers who have been here for a while like me.”

Donn Rubin, head of industry group BioSTL, said SLU’s new commitment was “great for St. Louis.”

“Universities are engines for innovation,” Rubin said. “The ideas generated through cutting-edge research provides the raw material for new companies and job creation in the 21st-century innovation economy.”

BioSTL’s incubator and seed investment affiliate, BioGenerator, does work more frequently with intellectual property developed at Washington University.

But the group has always had a strong relationship with SLU researchers. Rubin noted the first company to receive an investment from BioGenerator was Akermin, which started as fuel cell technology developed at SLU. One of its biggest current investments is in Indalo (formerly Antegrin), which is working on treatments for fibrosis using tech developed at SLU.

“I think it’s really important for St. Louis not to have just one powerhouse research university, but to have multiple,” Rubin said.