Research and innovation parks continue to evolve to meet the needs of students, faculty, and private-sector tenants alike.
In an era of ever-increasing global competition, innovation is the key to long-term corporate prosperity. University-affiliated research parks and innovation zones aren’t a brand-new idea, but they are more relevant than ever in today’s environment, as forward-thinking companies strive to stay ahead, generate better ideas, and bring those ideas to life.
These developments go by a variety of names and definitions and structures, but the common thread is the goal of creating partnerships between universities and the private sector that will drive innovation. The end result is a win-win-win for all of the various partners, including corporations, universities, and the communities in which these developments blossom.
Private-sector companies benefit by gaining access to expertise and new technologies. Universities benefit by commercializing their promising research, achieving a better understanding of what the “real world” needs from their graduates, and creating internship and job opportunities for their students. University communities gain from technology-led economic development.
“You get this sort of symbiotic relationship from a research park,” says Ronald J. Miller Jr., executive director of the Leon County Research and Development Authority, which oversees the Innovation Park of Tallahassee.
A great place to begin a conversation about linking companies with university expertise is the granddaddy of all of these kinds of developments, the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. The “triangle” in its name refers to the three university communities in relatively close proximity that serve as a magnet for innovation activity: University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University in Raleigh, and Duke University in Durham.
Research Triangle Park planted its flag on the map in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The company that invented Astroturf was its first tenant in 1960, and IBM soon followed. Today there are 200 companies in this innovation neighborhood, with some 50,000 technology experts making things happen in such fields as microelectronics, biotechnology, telecom, pharmaceuticals, environmental sciences, and chemicals.
A Wide Range of Activities
These days, though, the number of university research and innovation parks is approaching 200, according to the Association of University Research Parks. The concept gained a lot of momentum in the early 1980s, says Miller. “A lot of this goes back to the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980, in which the federal government said you can take intellectual property developed as a result of federal funding and the university has a right to license it,” he explains. “That opportunity to license technology made them start thinking, what can we do with this stuff?”
Quite a lot, it turns out, and the activities go far beyond technology licensing. “Our industry partners are engaged in a wide range of research and development activities,” says Cliff Hawks, president, and CEO of the Cherokee Farm Innovation Campus at the University of Tennessee. “Our partners at Cherokee Farm represent a broad range of R&D scientific disciplines and activities, including but not limited to data analytics, material science, and cybersecurity.”
He rattles off a number of specific examples. “Arkis Biosciences is currently working closely with researchers at our Joint Institute for Advanced Materials facility and benefiting from the lab facilities and spectroscopy capabilities,” Hawks says. “AUBO Robotics manufactures lightweight collaborative robots for industrial and academic use and works closely with the College of Engineering in the areas of mechanical and aerospace engineering. CEC Inc. works directly with the College of Environmental Engineering.”
The synergies are easy to spot. For example, “the Joint Institute for Advanced Materials, or JIAM, is a new, 140,000-square-foot material science R&D facility home to technologies and talent that are available in only a handful of facilities around the world,” Hawks explains. “Material science-related companies might want to work with Suresh Babu, who works with private industry at JIAM in both basic and applied research.”
Whatever the area of specialty, “Tenants benefit greatly through interaction with university personnel by identifying the specific applied research needed to address specific challenges and improve the company’s business,” he says. And not only is the park near and affiliated with a major research university, it’s also just 25 minutes from the Oak Ridge National Laboratories.
Miller’s development in Tallahassee also boasts a connection to a major national research facility, the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory. That has helped Innovation Park of Tallahassee become known for a specialization in magnetics. “Research parks all have their niches, and you try to develop industry clusters around the niches,” Miller explains. Just one example of how that plays out is the presence of Danfoss Turbocor at Innovation Park of Tallahassee. “Their technology is based on an oil-less compressor for HVAC, and it uses magnetic-based technology,” he notes.
Becoming Part of the Ecosystem
Arizona State University, meanwhile, has established a whole portfolio of innovation zones that allow the private sector to plug directly into university technology and expertise. The ASU Polytechnic Campus in Mesa, for example, provides research collaboration opportunities in everything from advanced manufacturing to aviation, robotics, and energy. Some 300 acres of adjacent land is ready for companies of all sizes to settle in, says Todd Hardy, managing director of the university’s innovation zones. “When a company comes to one of our innovation zones, they do so because they would like to work with the university in an integrated way,” Hardy explains. “The company is thoroughly integrated into what we do in every way that can be connected with the objectives of the company.”
Some 50 companies have chosen locations in another of the innovation zones, the ASU Research Park in the Phoenix area. Just as many new and established tech companies have addresses at SkySong, the ASU Scottsdale Innovation Center. The university is also partnering with the Mayo Clinic to create an innovation zone focused on biomedicine and health sciences. Other zones are tied into ASU campuses elsewhere.
A lot of this goes back to the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980, in which the federal government said you can take intellectual property developed as a result of federal funding and the university has a right to license it. That opportunity to license technology made them start thinking, what can we do with this stuff?Ronald J. Miller Jr., executive director, Leon County Research and Development Authority
In any of these zones, Hardy says, “Companies become part of our community, part of our ecosystem, partners that are integrated very deeply.” Corporate partners can be as big as Fortune 500 headquarters. Or they can be as small as a couple of people getting an innovative company off the ground. “We can support companies just getting started and help them grow in place,” Hardy says.
Innovation parks are attractive to a broad spectrum of operations, some more obvious than others. For example, the tenant list at Cal Poly Technology Park, in the California community of San Luis Obispo, includes a data management and analytics company called Healthcare IQ, a company called Tyvak that provides space vehicle products and services, and a maker of oil industry technology products called Applied Technologies Associates. It also includes the California Strawberry Commission, bringing a focus on sustainable farming and other activities.
“Every research park is different and a lot has to do with who started it, whether it’s a university or whether it’s government-funded. In our case, we were started around 1980,” Miller says of Innovation Park of Tallahassee. This particular development was enabled by Florida legislation that allows each county to create its own research park, with a wide variety of economic development tools such as tax-exempt financing vehicles.
The Tallahassee park ties into not just one but three local educational institutions — Florida State University, Florida A&M University, and Tallahassee Community College. The partnership has built a strong chemistry between the institutions, Miller says. The two universities, in fact, collaborate on a college of engineering. And that college, in turn, benefits from the presence of private-sector companies at the innovation park in many ways. For one thing, it gives educators a better understanding of the skill sets that the private sector is seeking, which results in the development of pertinent curriculum additions.
Widening Student Opportunities
That points to a significant plus for universities that build private-sector partnerships: opportunities for students. The presence of corporate partners on or near campus provides easy access to internships and other real-world opportunities. “It makes students’ experience much richer, and they are more informed of the challenges of the real world,” Hardy says.
That is one of the driving forces behind Rose-Hulman Ventures, part of the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in the western Indiana community of Terre Haute. It’s an institution that ranks highly among engineering schools that are focused primarily on bachelor’s- and masters-level education, and its Rose-Hulman Ventures connection to the real world serves that educational need, while also sparking private-sector innovation.
Rose-Hulman Ventures is located within a certified technology park but serves clients located elsewhere. “We operate very much like an engineering consulting firm, working within the confines of Rose-Hulman,” says Elizabeth Hagerman, vice president of Rose-Hulman Ventures and of corporate engagement at the institute. Companies connect with Rose-Hulman Ventures for help with product design, prototyping, proof of concept, and technological problem-solving and improvement.
“Companies come to us when they have an idea that they need to build out but they may not have an engineering capability in-house,” she explains. The more than a dozen full-time staffers include seven project managers who are engineers with lots of private-sector design and development experience. These project managers pull together development teams that include engineering student interns — that’s the educational connection. “This is not a technology-transfer model,” Hagerman points out. “Clients have the idea in the first place, but we may improve upon the idea.”
A key difference of this model involves intellectual property. In the typical tech park model, the university may retain intellectual property rights and license them to commercial ventures. “In our operating model, the IP stays with the client. Any IP developed during the course of a project will be the property of the client,” Hagerman says. “We need to make sure our clients are satisfied in order to win their work. If this can bring in some projects, that translates into more experiences for students.”
An Evolving Concept
Research and innovation parks continue to evolve to meet the needs of students, faculty, and private-sector tenants alike. According to Association of University Research Parks, as many as one in five parks is planning the addition of non-student housing. A lot of parks have also been adding or planning retail and restaurant offerings, and working toward a more urban feel.
What isn’t changing is the strong link between the academic world and the “real world” that builds through innovation park connections. As Miller observes, “There’s a feedback that happens for both components.”