By Eileen Walker, CEO of the Association of University Research Parks (AURP)
Active urban redevelopment projects are helping to rebuild long defunct, distressed downtown areas into cosmopolitan centers of activity—with many now branding and focusing on exciting concepts of “innovation.” Universities and academic medical centers are taking part in these exciting projects, contributing their expertise and know how. Companies are participating, too— helping to invigorate local startup, app development, and service economies.
Meanwhile, true innovation hums away at university research parks, most of them adjacent to major university campuses across the country. Significant and meaningful advancements in biotechnology and agricultural technology are being made in research parks every day—thanks to their collaborations with land-grant institutions, which have been crucial to the development to the economy not only of the United States but also the entire world.
In many university research parks, researchers from academia and industry work together to fulfill the mission defined by the Morrill Land Grant Acts, which supports agricultural and applied science research in the “pursuit of life.” Today, one of the most important endeavors in that pursuit is the production of food in the most efficient and effective manner possible. Given the world’s ever-rising human population, feeding people—a primary thrust of many land-grant research labs—is a job that stands at the forefront of building a sustainable future for humanity.
University research parks are exploring areas of technology well beyond what the Morrill Land Grant ever envisioned. Consider, for example, the possibility of putting an unmanned flight system—a drone, that is—to work tending an agricultural field.
That’s one of the many areas of “precision agriculture” that comes from the research park at North Dakota State University, one of the nation’s premier land-grant institutions. Work done at the park has spun off several new companies, including one that specializes in applying data to assist farmers in determining the optimal levels and timing of crop fertilizers. Drones take spectroscopic or infrared images that reveal exact levels of growth. Processing that information, other drones pass overhead and deposit fertilizer to enhance the crop, all without requiring human intervention.
It makes sense, says Chuck Hoge, interim director of North Dakota State’s Research & Technology Park, that high tech should be the emerging focus of an institution long known for agriculture alone. The NDSU Research and Tech Park was founded in 1999, he notes, and many of the firms it has incubated have been quickly acquired by major companies.
Recently Appareo, born at NDSU, announced that it will be joint venturing with AGCO Corporation, which controls a $10 billion market, to develop technology for advanced machine control systems. Appareo is a skyrocketing firm growing at 45 percent annually. Recent developments in nanotech engineering are also spurring even more activity at the park.
“North Dakota is known these days for shale oil development,” says Hoge, “and that’s one of the reasons the State has led the nation in job growth for the last five years. There’s a robust economy in North Dakota due its leadership in agricultural technology. What we’re doing with these applications of technology is helping our state continue to diversify its economy. It’s working. We now have the largest Microsoft campus in the world outside Redmond, and the entrepreneurial culture here in North Dakota is very strong.” The results can be summed up in a telling fact that many other states would envy: the unemployment rate in North Dakota is less than two percent.
Wooster, Ohio, is the site of the largest agricultural experimentation station in the country—and not accidentally, the unemployment rate there is also lower than the national and regional averages. Affiliated with the land-grant Ohio State University, the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) is an international center for advances in agricultural biosciences, including biotechnology. Wayne County, Wooster’s home, is in turn Ohio’s largest agricultural producer. As both a research center and business incubator, OARDC has produced some noteworthy successes. One that OARDC president and executive director Shauna Brummet points to is the Cleveland-based Quasar Energy Group, which recycles energy from the organic waste that agriculture produces in abundance. Biomass sources such as food waste, manure, biosolids, and crop waste provide the raw materials for what is known as anaerobic digestion, which in turn yields a ready supply of energy.
“Such research activity forms one of the principal branches of OARDC’s work—namely, bioenergy and bioproducts,” notes Brummet. Others include environmental quality and sustainability and food production and safety, emphasizing what Brummet calls “functional foods”—foods that may have the virtue of tasting good but that also yield significant health benefits, such as tomatoes. This focus on health and food production adds another dimension to the OARDC campus of the future, which will soon offer “scale-up food incubators” to provide technology that will help local food producers to ramp up their output and distribute their products nationally.
Recognizing the importance of university research parks and innovation hubs to feeding a rapidly growing world population, many other institutions are similarly growing their facilities. The Nebraska Innovation Campus, for example, is part of the land-grant University of Nebraska. When it is completed in the next few years, the Innovation Campus will be comprise more than 2.2 million square feet of facilities, including specially designed laboratories involved in agricultural and technology research. It will also include more than 60,000 square feet of greenhouse space. When it is completed, NIC will have more than 5,000 employees. About two-thirds of these employees will be working for private companies within the vaunted triple helix—academia, government, and business—that guides university research parks around the nation.
University research parks and ag technologists look upstream for the research and inventors, but also downstream to the growers and, ultimately, the consumers. Many of them work closely with agricultural extension agencies to spread the word to farming constituencies; Auburn University’s Agriculture Experiment Station, for example, coordinating with Auburn Research Park, has agents in each of Alabama’s 67 counties, while OARDC and North Dakota State offer outreach to every corner of their respective states. Serving already vast and ever-growing audiences, university research parks are at the forefront of food production, food safety, and agricultural sustainability, driving innovation and sparking economic growth supporting the nation and the world.