As federal and state funding opportunities grow scarce, many research centers around the United States are scrambling to find new revenue streams and compete with other organizations. For higher education institutions, such as Louisiana State University, this often means raising tuition to offset budget cuts. However, facilities that do not collect student payments are usually forced to turn to the private sector. This leaves many institutions, like the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, struggling to find a place in the private market.
The Pennington Biomedical Research Center, a facility associated with LSU, conducts clinical, basic and population science research. The center is perhaps best known for its studies on nutritional research and preventative medicine. Unfortunately, this work usually depends on long-term research, making it difficult to combine Pennington’s mission and clinical procedures with the goals of private industries. As a result, the biomedical center and similar facilities are forced to find creative ways to apply their work to different industries.
But Pennington has a unique advantage: over the last 25 years, the biomedical center has worked with over 100 companies on everything from nutrition to pharmaceutical products. Moreover, due to the facility’s emphasis on nutrition, weight loss and preventative medicine, Pennington is poised to meet a number of societal trends, including a growing interest in longer life spans. So far, the facility has been used to test every obesity drug on the market and a variety of diabetes medications. The center has even tested health-focused smart phone apps. The challenge, Pennington’s staff says, is convincing private investors to fund long-term studies. But if the organization is successful, they say that decreasing reliance on unpredictable federal and state grants could help stabilize their operations, as well as other research centers in the area.
To help meet this goal, Pennington hired its first chief business development officer, David Winwood, in July 2014. Winwood previously served as the senior associate vice president for economic development and innovation alliances at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, as well as the chief executive officer of the research foundation. He is now responsible for moving research discoveries on health, prevention and the treatment of chronic diseases into the global marketplace.
Unfortunately, given Pennington’s history, it is unknown if a switch to private funding will be possible or sufficient for the center’s needs: the facility has largely survived on a combination of federal grants and private contracts, with 80% of its funding coming from non-state sources. Since 2008-2009, Pennington has seen an almost 20% decline in state funds, and federal funding is likewise constrained. While the organization has stated that this has not affected the quality of their work, falling behind modern technologies and failing to update procedures could easily spell out the organization’s downfall.
“Private-Public partnerships are vital for sustaining our great medical centers going forward,” says Rick Michels, Marketing Director for Dataworks Development, Inc. “Times change, and investment shifts to other avenues. But, like our company, institutions like Pennington have the experience and knowledge to move with the changes. They need the freedom to serve in both private and public arenas to survive. Innovation zones are a big part of survival, a part that serves the community at large as it leads to more and faster cures.”
To stay current and avoid problems, scientists at Pennington say that they are constantly seeking funding, a process that often means submitting multiple grant applications for funding. Being denied, they say, can be frustrating. However, by combining federal and state grants with funding from private investors, the organization says it is confident their organization will be able to continue its research.