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Q&A: Seven North Carolina Research Parks Forge Alliance to Boost State's Life-Sci Play


With the Research Triangle Park celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, North Carolina life-science leaders will have a chance to reflect how the region has helped re-anchor the state's economy from tobacco growing and furniture building.

Yet RTP and six other life-sci parks in the state are spending at least as much time thinking ahead as looking back. The seven have formed the North Carolina Research Parks Network, a coalition aimed at helping them brand and locate technology resources statewide and boost the life sciences and other tech sectors.

According to the state-funded North Carolina Biotechnology Center, the Tar Heel State is home to more than 450 bioscience companies that have either headquarters or other operations employing a combined 55,000 people. Despite a life-sci cluster that is the envy of many other states, North Carolina ranks only 18th in the Milken Institute's State Technology and Science Index, released last June [BRN, June 23, 2008].

When it comes to technology concentration and dynamism — the stock of capable entrepreneurs and risk capital available to support the conversion of research into commercially viable technology products and services — the state's ranking dips to 22nd.

Joining RTP as members of the new network:

• The Piedmont Triad Research Park in Winston-Salem, a vehicle for redeveloping the city's downtown for research uses that complement the strengths of Wake Forest University's School of Medicine and Baptist Medical Center.

Gateway University Research Park in Browns Summit, a joint research campus in collaboration with North Carolina A&T State University and the University of North Carolina Greensboro;

Charlotte Research Institute, created by the University of North Carolina at Charlotte to accelerate the university's development as a top-tier research university;

Centennial Campus at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, designed to wed university faculty, students, and research centers with industry and government counterparts;

• Two emerging tech parks — food/real estate magnate David Murdock's 350-acre, $1.5 billion North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis; and Carolina North, the nearly 9 million square-foot mixed-use campus, to include research space, planned by University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

News of the network came less than a month after North Carolina's Board of Science and Technology issued a report urging the state to boost spending for technology translation, increase its role in workforce training, and advance new technologies into rural regions [BRN, Jan. 12].

BioRegion News recently discussed the new network and the broader challenge of uniting North Carolina's research parks toward common economic development goals with Bill Dean, director of the PTRP. Following is an edited transcript of that conversation:

How did the network come to be created?

Rick Weddle, who is the CEO for the Research Triangle Park, and I had met on numerous occasions; we work together from a North Carolina [life sciences economic development] perspective. And we began to look at ways that research parks in North Carolina could collaborate, and how we could best work together, and how we could best look at bringing the technological and intellectual capital elements of our respective parks to the next model of research parks, and what would that look like. And with the global competitiveness today, and the recent changes in the world economy, how we [can] better create a model going forward, to be competitive and to bring about capabilities that could sustain, attract, and grow high-technology industries across North Carolina.

In what way would models of North Carolina's research parks need to change to bring about the greater global competitiveness you cited?

I don't think the model would have to change. I think it's creating a next model of research parks by taking their respective park development, their focus in the areas of technology that they're advancing. There are seven parks that we've identified across North Carolina that are part of this network. We're looking at how to build a value proposition for companies, for bringing in academia and industry together, bringing technologies from emerging growth companies to build new economic opportunities — how will those needs be met? And in emerging from the old world of economic development, what kind of new strategies need to be put forth in this new model? The new model is about economic advancement, and new technologies that the US economy is looking at to support the needs of a global population.

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One of the topics of the models has been energy, one of the topics has been environmental [technology], and one has been healthcare, which relates into biotechnology. You start bringing all these new technologies from science and applications. How can we as a state, with the network, bring these resources to bear? How can we bring better value, new opportunities, new industries that want access to technologies that will make them globally competitive?

How would the network advance the evolution of healthcare and the life sciences in North Carolina?

I think from our network perspective, it's mainly looking at building core technologies and capabilities that we already have in North Carolina, bringing them from across the state, into one source, making that known, and expanding that. When you look at life science in general, and healthcare applications, it isn't like one technology that gets to a product for development. It is numerous technologies. You look at cell developments. You look at nano-type technologies. You look at material sciences and things that relate to building organs, or therapeutic drug deliveries. It's a multitude of sciences that are both productive within this state, and around this state. All we're doing is really looking at what research capabilities are in our individual respective parks. And we'll be thinking about ways we can bring them forward electronically, ways we can work together to build better value [for] people that need this type of resource.

What form will the collaboration between parks take? Will this be mainly a marketing effort? Will this be a set of services and facilities you would offer to other academic institutions?

Yes, absolutely. It's a network of research parks and their models across North Carolina. And it is definitely open to other innovation regions or areas around our state that want to participate, and collaborate in this network. What we would like to do as well is go to areas or pockets of our state that might be in initial planning stages of developing a research park, or an incubator or accelerator-type program that can advance technologies, or advance science, or new ideas or creations in one part of the state.

We've identified what are the future science parks of the world. We're looking at other models around the world to see how they carry out their best practices. We're looking at collaborative marketing efforts to bring together through an electronic way — to provide the resources that we have in our parks and make them readily available to other users. We're looking at how [we] can influence, and how [we] can be a part of the overall public policy decision-making, and provide support for the process of change that we will be seeing going forward, both on a national level, and in state levels. How can we demonstrate a process? And what are the gaps that need to be tended to [in order] to help successful commercialization of technologies? We definitely want to look at capital formation for new technologies, in the form of everything from creative loans to grants, to tax credits, to other types of traditional incentives that can help commercialize and support and sustain new technology innovation growth.

And then, we want to continue to watch our core technology assessment, and statistics within our own parks and areas, and keep building the core technology base, and help each other build that base by supporting each other. And one of the final things we're going to do as a group this year is — you might know that the International Association of Science Parks is holding its annual conference for the first time in the United States. That will be held in Raleigh-Durham in June. And we're going to help, and are helping with that program. And part of that is looking at best practice and models. We're going to present our white paper at that time about our network, and where we see things, and how we can work with our international partners in technology development as well. We have a very ambitious agenda, but we have a great team of people that have been in the research park sector, coming from academia and business. Having all the parks working together as one can be a useful tool in helping further advance technology in North Carolina. And I hope that we're successful enough that it can be used as a model and implemented in other parts of our country.

You mentioned new models and best practices. What parks from beyond North Carolina are you looking at that reflect these new models and best practices?

We're not excluding any park from that look, because they're all engaged in various innovations and technologies. They all have different partners that support their visions and their scope of work. So we can take a look at the best of all of those, from parks that are driven by federal laboratories, smaller parks that are just starting out, parks focused on specific applications — they could be focused on energy, or bioscience. Each region of the country has different models in play. We're looking at those, and seeking what other states are doing to leverage their resources for new companies of the future. And the position we're looking at is: Since industry and the economy as we see today are changing, we want to look at and adapt to those changes, so we can have really profound engagement in being a part of growth for the new economy. That's what we're looking at, and that's what we want to be focused on. We want to bring our group together, as opposed to acting individually.

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This isn't going to hamper, by any stretch of the imagination, the individual efforts of each of these seven research parks, and hopefully more coming into the network. We want to support the individual parks and programs, and say collectively, what are those common threads that are necessary for us all to do well. We're going to meet, and be forward-thinking toward those efforts.

How will the network, for example, involve PTRP? What will it be able to do differently?

PTRP, as with each individual park, will reflect that old algebra expression, 'the sum of the parts makes the whole.' And I think if we're being one of the sum of the parts, and contribute our intellectual capital and resources, and likewise when you're connected with the Research Triangle Park, one of the oldest research regions in the United States, there are benefits we bring to the table to them, and there are benefits they bring to the table with us. I think when we start putting all those together, as we have talked about, individually from our parks we see great value to the parks from that. I think the competitive spirit of that will definitely be alive and well, and it will also be one that drives us further to do things.

Through unity, through our marketing efforts, and through our technological capabilities, we'll be able to draw attention and focus from the network to get the interested party — whether it's a business, whether it's a scientific researcher, or whether it's an emerging growth company — to have another resource and another tool to where we can bring, hopefully very quickly, value to what they're trying to accomplish, as long as that value is going to bring economic benefit to the state, and to the individual parks the network will service.

How have the roles of each park within the broader network been set? Who will do what?

I'm chairman of the group, and we're going to have a meeting to flesh out all of the organizational structure of the network. My goal is that every individual park member will have — based on their interest and expertise, and what value they can bring to the total organization — a committee assignment and role to help do this. One person can't do it. It's going to be a perpetual play in motion, and we're just an open committee that wants to see definite accomplishments, based on our planning process. We want to be an organization that just isn't a think tank, but would be an organization that also brings real value and benefit by having completed action items, and completed things that really make a difference for this state, and the parks that are represented in this state.

What will be the measures of your success? Will it be 'X' number of jobs created, or 'X' number of laws passed?

I think it's a combination of that. I think the bottom line in today's environment is how can we collaboratively bring new technologies, new companies, new wealth, and particularly new jobs today? Definitely jobs, jobs, jobs for the future of North Carolina, and for existing companies that are going to expand in North Carolina, and how [we] can assist that. The economic measurement is definitely going to be what we're all about. But economics and science and technology parks can be measured differently than the traditional economic development groups.

We're just as much about getting the best and the brightest minds into our academic institutions. We want to keep our best and brightest students, and provide opportunities for them to either find a place where they want to work and be creative, and/or start their own companies within the state. It's a whole sphere of economic opportunities. But at the end of the day, the measuring tool for us is how we've been able to combine our resources, put those together, collaborate, and offer a value proposition that continues to bring economic value into the state of North Carolina, in a very competitive global marketplace.

A few weeks back, the state Science and Technology Board issued a report, Advancing Innovation in North Carolina, that urged a greater state role in tech transfer and worker training. Given the success North Carolina has had in attracting life-science activity and jobs, why are the state's industry and academic leaders expressing so much worry about the future?

I wouldn't say 'worry.' To me, that's more like intelligent thinking. Everybody uses the old cliché of [hockey legend Wayne] Gretsky [who said his approach to his game was] skating to where the puck is [going to be]. I think what makes North Carolina unique is the fact we're looking to the future, and we definitely know that when it comes to the future, so to speak, all bets are off the table; the economics of tomorrow are not the economics of today. North Carolina has been a great state for innovation. This is the 50th anniversary of the Research Triangle Park.

So as we look at that, it's not about worry. It's about being forward thinking, and thinking about where we are going to be in the future. North Carolina wants to be a competitive state. North Carolina can be one. We have a tremendous amount of intellectual capital, and what we're looking at is using that capital to where the projects that are going to build the new America are going to be carried out here. At the end of the day, that generates economic opportunity for the citizens that reside in this state. I'm not trying to sound like the governor. But I am saying North Carolina should be commended for [life-science business, institutional, and government leaders saying,] 'Let's think where we're going to be the most competitive. And let's go where we can build real value for the rest of the American economy and build upon that.'

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With the current economic and financial market upheaval, the state faces a budget shortfall. Two of your network's members, the North Carolina Research Campus and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, have delayed planned construction projects. How will the network be able to operate in the current economic environment?

I think the timing really couldn't be any better. We're going to put collective minds and available resources in the right direction, versus individuals trying to go out and do things where some of them might be successful and some might not be. When you're in a period such as we have now with the US economy and the global economy, it requires very smart thinking, it requires very good planning, it requires being focused, it requires being frugal with available capital that's necessary to move forward. I think this is a really good time for us to be looking at this and building economies of scale, and building a value proposition that can reduce cost and that can build the future.

I look at this as a time of opportunity, not a time of saying, 'Let's go in and hide in the closet and wait till this is over.' We're looking at a time to where we want to be a solution to the problem, not create an additional problem by worrying.

You cited improving workforce training. North Carolina has been involved in a lot of efforts to that end. What role can the network play in training workers?

The network, and the individual parks, have been working with the community colleges already, and answering the questions: What will the new workforce look like? Where do they need to be trained? And the parks also talk to industries that are located within our respective parks that provide from CEO roundtables and other things what do we need to do to prepare and help that workforce to move forward. That's an ongoing effort, and one that North Carolina has always placed a high priority on, and that's education and workforce training. Without that, it's pretty hard to run a business.

As for capital formation, what would the network do beyond efforts already in place?

We go and listen to emerging companies that are in our incubators and accelerators. We listen to our companies that are in the next phase of possible growth and advancement, and wanting to expand. [We ask,] what are the challenges that you have in finding appropriate capital to grow or expand their business, or to begin their business? And how can we work with our academic enterprises? We make suggestions to structure a way to get capital. How do we identify ways to fill that gap? That's what we'll be looking at. We haven't solved that yet, but we're going to definitely look at it. What are the roadblocks? What are the hurdles? How can they be surmounted? We want to address those things, and not act on crisis, but look at ways that are going to allow growth and advancement of companies. That's what we'll be addressing as well. A lot of good ideas will come from a lot of people.

Will this network tie into any groups outside of North Carolina?

We're working with the International Association of Science Parks. We're working with the Association of University Research Parks. We're members of both organizations, and I believe that there's plenty of room for discussion, for dialogue. We definitely want to be focused first on the initiative of what this research park is going to be about, and what it will do, and what we can accomplish. That will be our first priority.