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Laing Tapped to Lead New Capital City Innovation District in Austin

Xconomy Texas — 

Austin—The Texas capital is already known as a hub for young innovative tech companies. Now, Austin is working on expanding its entrepreneurial portfolio with a new innovation zone targeting biotech.

Austin leaders recently announced that Christopher Laing will be the first executive director of the Capital City Innovation District, a 14-acre zone in downtown Austin dedicated to promoting healthcare innovation. Anchor partners include the University of Texas’s Dell Medical School, Seton Healthcare Family, and Central Health, a public health agency.

On Monday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced that those local institutions will be joined by pharmaceutical giant Merck. The pharmaceutical company will develop its new IT hub in Austin, and that that center would be part of the downtown innovation district, which will focus on health IT and digital health, the governor said. (Merck received state and local incentives, such as a $6 million grant from the Texas Enterprise Fund, to come to Texas.)

Laing held a similar role in Philadelphia where he is finishing up an 11-year term as vice president of the City University Science Center, a 31-member organization that brought together academic, entrepreneurial, corporate, and investment partners to nurture innovative technologies. Likely the best known of these sorts of innovation zones is Kendall Square in Cambridge, MA, a cluster of big pharma, universities such as MIT, and dozens of young life sciences companies.

A native of Australia, Laing obtained his veterinary degree and PhD in endocrinology at the University of Sydney and came to the University of Pennsylvania Medical School as a research fellow. It was at the university where Laing says he became involved with healthcare startups.

“That experience made me fall in love with whole idea of how science actually ends up having positive benefits to society,” he says. “It’s one thing to generate knowledge and archive that knowledge, but I never really thought about, as general scientist, how that archived knowledge can turn into things that help people and change society.”

Laing starts his post in Austin September 1. As he readies for his new gig, I spoke with him about wanting to be in a startup-like environment again, bringing lessons learned to Austin from Philadelphia, and finding ways to work with healthcare innovators in Houston to benefit efforts in both cities. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Xconomy: How did you get connected with the Austin innovation district in the first place? Did they come to you?

Christopher Laing: A little bit of both. I was in Austin about a year ago, participating on a site visit that was being conducted by an organization working with the Department of Commerce. The purpose was really for me to come and learn about what was happening in Austin. Because of my work in Philadelphia, I have had a great deal of interest in benchmarking other places. I’ve looked at places as diverse as Boston-Cambridge, Toronto, St. Louis. I’m always very interested in what is happening in the innovation spaces in other urban environments. I had never had an opportunity to look at Austin—Austin was possibly lower down on my radar since a large part of my background is healthcare and life sciences. It was more geared as a tech hub and creative hub for creative industries.

Austin has created a lot of buzz. It’s very well known for its strengths in tech innovation … I had a couple of contacts in Austin to help set up some meetings for me, including at Dell medical … Next Page »

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