Chris Laing, PhD
Capital City Innovation
Chris leads Capital City Innovation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit that is providing vision, strategic direction, advocacy, and synergy among the organizations and individuals creating, growing, and sustaining Austin's Innovation District. It was founded by Central Health, Seton Health, and The University of Texas at Austin and began operations in 2017. Austin’s innovation district is committed to economic diversification, inclusive place-making, and healthy community.
HTA - Tell us about your personal/professional background?
My personal and professional backgrounds are both meandering! I was born in Hong Kong, I grew up in Australia – the suburbs of Sydney – and when I finished school, I took myself to the UK where I lived and worked in and around London before making my way to the U.S. – first Philadelphia and, most recently, Austin.
I initially trained as a veterinarian and worked in companion animal practice for a number of years. But the idea of discovery has always been exciting to me, and I did my Ph.D. and post-doctoral training in molecular biology. I’ve spent a few years teaching and doing research, and then I caught the entrepreneurial bug. After my post-doc, I worked with a series of startups - mainly medtech and biotech companies spinning out of universities.
Over the last 12 years, I have been working with organizations that build entrepreneurial ecosystems and innovation districts. I’ve always enjoyed collecting experiences, meeting new people, and the challenge of making new starts! But one thing I’ve always found – whether personally or professionally – every experience has been useful.
HTA - Can you share about your recent experience on the leadership team of the Science Center in Philadelphia?
The Science Center is an unusual organization. Owned by a consortium of 31 universities and research organizations in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, it built the nation’s first urban innovation district. Some of today’s most significant medical breakthroughs have been incubated there, including the first FDA-approved diagnostic for Alzheimer’s Disease, and the first approved gene therapy (a cure for blindness!) Today its annual economic impact on the region rivals that of Philadelphia International Airport!
I joined the Science Center about 11 years ago when I was invited to lead its university relationships, investment programs, and startup incubators and accelerators. It was where I learned how to support and connect academic and entrepreneurial communities, and how to combine and synergize the development and management of a 24-acre property to achieve community, investment, and capacity-building priorities. When I left in 2017 I wasn’t looking for a new job – but seeing the potential to apply some of these lessons in Austin’s emerging health and life science ecosystem was just too tempting to pass up!
HTA - What are some of the similarities and differences of Philadelphia and Austin?
Philadelphia is a large, historical, northeastern city – the home of the original American entrepreneurs – who created our nation by drafting the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. But, like many industrial-era cities, it has also experienced a decline. Its current renaissance is being driven by significant collaboration among its academic, business, and cultural institutions. The population (particularly Millennials) is growing, and there is an exciting revitalization of its downtown.
Austin is smaller - and for all that it has grown rapidly in recent years, it still manages to retain a great small-town feel. It is newer, and so are most of its residents! Its culture of entrepreneurship is perhaps stronger and feels more recent. But there does seem to be less systematic connectivity among its business, academic, civic, and cultural sectors.
And I won’t even try and pit cheesesteaks against breakfast tacos!
However, there are perhaps more similarities between the two places than you might think. Both sites have an ambitious and collaborative spirit. Both cities’ residents are down-to-earth and value authenticity. And both cities are positioning themselves as internationally-recognized centers of innovation and entrepreneurship. While I think Austin may have a slight edge – we can’t get complacent!
HTA - What did you learn at your previous job, that impacts how you lead Capital City Innovation today?
Like any ecosystem, an innovation district needs to consider a full spectrum of elements – that means you can’t concentrate on only startups, or only university researchers, or only real estate, or only the community. You need to focus on how all these elements interact. Creating common value among academic, real estate, non-profit, large and small business, community, and other participants are how the business model of innovation districts work – so that the success of each contribute to the success of the others. Capital City Innovation’s strategy is to prioritize activities in four areas simultaneously: connecting the innovation community, investing in innovation, building capacity (workforce), and creating the venue(s).
Having a consensus builder is key since there are so many organizations involved, each with their own priorities. This is the true value of convening organizations, like the Science Center in Philadelphia, and Capital City Innovation in Austin – they are neutral intermediaries that can serve as platforms for building consensus in a way that delivers value to all the participants. Capital City Innovation’s approach is to work via partnerships wherever possible. Our approach is not to solve challenges on our own, but rather how can we connect with business, academic, community, government, and non-profit partners who have aligned visions? Easy, right?
HTA - What can you tell us about the planned physical environment of the Innovation District and its current status?
Unlike almost all others that I’m familiar with, Austin’s Innovation District is not a single, contiguous property with a demarcating boundary. Instead, it will be an association of organizations and properties on a hub-and-spoke model, supporting the shared vision of healthier community and economic growth for all! Of course, that association network starts with the University of Texas at Austin, its Dell Medical School, the new Dell Seton Medical Center, and Central Health’s downtown campus – the former Brackenridge medical center. Brackenridge is being planned by Central Health and its partners in alignment with Central Health’s mission and its community consultation project - part of the campus was just approved for lease-to-develop by a non-profit working with the University of Texas.
But there are other opportunities. One big partnership that I expect will transform Austin’s Innovation District is the work being done by the Waller Creek Conservancy along its chain of parks – I believe these public spaces will be among the best in our nation. And there are some other public and private developments nearby, and connections that can be made with academic, public, and private developers in other neighborhoods, that could be linked both physically and functionally to the Innovation District.
CCI is working collaboratively to imagine the emerging Innovation District. In addition to working directly with partners on specific development plans, we are working with the Downtown Austin Alliance on a blueprint for the overall neighborhood that will help to align masterplans and also consider connections to other innovation hubs throughout our region.
This isn’t a closed system – do you have a development you’d like to connect to and be part of, the Innovation District?
HTA - You are approaching your first year anniversary leading CCI, any unique stories that you can share?
This year we’ve been focusing not just on developing the strategy for creating and growing Austin’s Innovation District, but also on getting started in our other strategic priority areas: connecting community, investing in innovation, and building capacity (workforce). Most of my stories are about great partnerships – which is what CCI and the Innovation District should be all about!
In terms of connecting community, we’re working with Health Tech Austin (of course) and Austin Tech Alliance, focusing on connecting the tech community with Austin’s awesome safety net organizations. We had an event in May on telemedicine in Texas, and we are exploring a conversation about patient mobility. And at the start of this year, we convened a group of our region’s health and life science business incubators, including Austin Community College, Austin Tech Incubator, Dell Med’s CoLab, the Drug Dynamics Institute, Texas State University’s STAR Park, and the Temple Health and Bioscience District. This affinity group is all about sharing best practices and resources and telling our stories nationally and internationally and meets regularly.
In terms of investing in innovation, we have created a collaboration among a dozen health systems, universities, and businesses to help Texas startup companies compete more effectively for federal funding around projects that solve challenges faced by the clinical and social safety net. This consortium was endorsed by the Governor’s office to submit Texas’ only application to the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Federal and State Technology funding program this past June.
In terms of building capacity, we were proud to partner with Impact Hub Austin on their inaugural workforce development accelerator, which supported nine great companies with unique solutions in the creative industries, healthcare training, mentorship and other areas.
HTA - What has surprised you about Austin’s healthcare and tech ecosystem?
There are already so many organizations in this space, and they’re already doing so much – a lot more than I realized before I arrived. And there has been a lot of interest in engaging in the Innovation District!
Of course, that association network starts with the University of Texas at Austin and its Dell Medical School in partnership with the new Dell Seton Medical Center, owned and operated by Seton/Ascension, and Central Health’s downtown campus – the former Brackenridge medical center. Brackenridge is being planned by Central Health and its partners in alignment with Central Health’s mission and its community consultation project - part of the campus was just approved for lease-to-develop by a non-profit working with the University of Texas.
Three significant community health systems – Seton, St. David’s, and Baylor, Scott and White – all of which have engaged with us in exploring ways to work to further connect innovators to the communities they serve. There has been terrific engagement by a robust set of safety-net organizations – Central Health, Integral Care, Lone Star Circle of Care, Meals on Wheels and others – all of which are enthusiastic about exploring how innovation can further transform what they are doing!
And, of course, there is a burgeoning set of start-up companies. I’ve found that the lab space, mentorship, and resources available to health and life science companies here in Austin can stand up against any that can be found in any innovation hub in the northeast – and by aggregating them, they will be even more competitive. That’s why Austin is looking to create a health Innovation District.
HTA - You have taken a very collaborative approach in trying to break down silos and engage partnerships, how is that going?
Austin is built on collaboration – it’s part of our fabric and culture. But while there are many existing examples of partnerships – especially outside of the health space - they are often driven by, and dependent on, individual people. I think there is still room to build a framework for systematic organizational and sector collaboration, and that’s why we are even considering an innovation district.
The challenges faced by society today – the really big problems relating to health, sustainability, and economic equity, for example – are not going to be solved by any one entity. No single government, nor university, nor company. These big challenges are going to take collaboration among multiple entities. This is why innovation districts are becoming increasingly prevalent as drivers of metropolitan productivity.
Collaboration is also what underlies the economic sustainability of an innovation district which, as a concept, links place and programs. Developers of shopping districts care about the success of retailers and customers because their success drives the success of the shopping district. In the same way, the success of innovation district developers is aligned with the success of innovators and community – and this is what underpins the sustainable economics of the innovation district.
So, collaboration and alignment among the developers, innovators, and community will both create financial sustainability and drive innovation outputs which include inclusive health and economic growth for all in Austin’s Innovation District. We know the model works, but it requires buy-in from stakeholders and their trust that each can benefit from the success of all the others. This is why a neutral convening organization like Capital City Innovation is so important. We’re in the process of putting together the frameworks that will enable our stakeholders to “tie-in” to the model – so stay tuned.
HTA - Austin is consistently recognized as having great potential for healthcare innovation, how can it achieve great success?
Austin (and Texas) has a great international profile for innovation and entrepreneurship. It has a substantially large corporate presence, particularly in sectors such as semiconductors, e-commerce, and logistics. It is world-renowned in the creative industries. It has a top-40 research university. It has terrific platforms for bringing world-leaders together in all these spaces, and it is recognized as a great place to live!
But, at least in my experience, it is not well-recognized healthcare and life science innovation hub, yet. The good news is that we’re taking steps in that direction! Austin’s innovation capabilities in health and life sciences have the potential to advance considerably with the Dell Medical School and with Austin’s Innovation District. And if we are going to compete effectively with the hundreds of other innovation hubs around the world, we need this. Industry diversity is essential if Austin is to be placed among the top of its peer innovation hubs.
If you look at innovation cities across the county – like Atlanta, Nashville, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Research Triangle, San Francisco and others - most are substantially over-represented in one field (often health and life sciences). More than 70% of their innovation, at least as measured by academic R&D, occurs in that dominant sector. Being dominant in one field is like putting all your eggs in one basket. If priorities or opportunities shift, you’ve already made your bets, and you may be less nimble in responding to changing circumstance.
There are only two significant innovation hubs in which strengths are evenly distributed among multiple industry sectors (life sciences, engineering, computer science and others) – one is Boston-Cambridge, arguably the most successful innovation hub in the country. The other is – you guessed it – Austin. We have strong engineering, computer science, communications, and other capabilities – and now we’re strengthening our health and life sciences innovation capabilities. If we do this right, we will be positioned among, arguably, the greatest innovation hubs in the world!
But, if we’re going to make an impact, we need to stay focused. In the world of innovation districts, Austin’s is a start-up – which means we need to leverage existing strengths and remain laser-focused! We need to know our niche! We are not trying to develop another Kendall Square, or another Research Triangle Park, or another Texas Medical Center. We need to create our niche! Leverage our strengths in academic, corporate, entrepreneurial, and community organizations – the intersection of engineering, digital analytics, biology, and social enterprise. Austin will be where traditional biology, medical devices and diagnostics, and therapeutics intersect with population health and the business of health. It will be the birthplace of a new approach to getting and keeping America’s communities healthy.
HTA - How do you learn? What are you reading?
I have a short attention span. I like to use as many senses as I can, and I also like to mix things up. So I like to read, listen, view, and visit – usually in small bursts! At the moment the novel I’m reading is Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison – I’ve always been fascinated by how 19th and 20th-century fiction sheds light on today’s cultural perspectives. I also like listening to books when I’m in the car or doing my shopping. The audiobook I am currently halfway through is Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari.
And in terms of the other senses – I love to travel and to cook. Among my favorite traveling experiences have been when I’ve gotten to speak to local people in authentic settings – a rug maker and his family in central-West Turkey, Angolan housekeepers hitching a ride home across Botswana, a taxi driver in central China. What I remember about these conversations is that we all care about the same things – family, a decent life, and healthcare!