By Eileen Walker, Chief Executive Officer, Association of University Research Parks
Innovation is the single most powerful fuel for economic growth in the world. With innovation, an economy can flourish and diversify—and enrich its members as well.
With that in mind, consider this scenario: A researcher, working in a laboratory at a research university campus, makes a promising discovery—say, a way to craft new, artificial human skin using 3D printing technology. The discovery can change countless lives for the better. How does that promising innovation move quickly from the laboratory into the marketplace, where it can help burn victims to heal more quickly, while also creating new companies, and new ways to fuel economic prosperity?
The answer is this: by leveraging the “triple helix” capabilities of the university’s research park.
The “triple helix”—a combination of the powers of government, industry, and academia—describes a fairly recent development in the history of universities. Today, universities are expanding their traditional economic development role, which centers on conducting research and providing education. Universities are now partnering with government and industry to spark innovation and enable the rapid transmission of ideas through the “community of innovation” that university research parks provide.
A powerful example of this triple helix can be found in Birmingham, Alabama, where the University of Alabama has developed a deep network of relationships with medical and medical-technology firms. Over the years, their partnerships have made Birmingham an internationally important center of medical research and discovery. In the same way, the greater Chicago area has emerged as an international center of nanotechnology, medial diagnostics, and pharmaceuticals precisely because world-class schools such as Northwestern and the University of Chicago have taken the lead in forging such alliances. “Because we’re the home of robust, high-end universities, a research community has flourished here,” says David Baker, vice president for external affairs at the Illinois Institute of Technology. “We’re now expanding on this by accelerating the growth of small companies. These companies can avail themselves of all the large hospitals, schools, and pharmaceutical companies in the region. The investment climate is good, and we are seeing nothing but solid growth.”
The pattern of solid growth is widespread in the university research park community. There are about 175 such parks across the United States and Canada today. According to a recent survey conducted by the Battelle Technology Partnership Practice, these parks are drivers of innovation and economic growth within their own home communities.
University research parks stand at the center of the triple helix, enabling effective, fruitful cooperation among private and public concerns that is of material benefit to local communities and their regions as well as to the larger national and international economy.
University research parks create an environment that encourages innovation and entrepreneurship, and economic growth then follows.
Indeed, the Battelle report notes that between 2007 and 2012, a time of recession and crisis throughout the economy, collectively university research parks saw park company job growth exceeding 25 percent, with actual employment in 2012 exceeding 379,750 nationwide—a far brighter picture than that for the economy as a whole.
As an example, after choosing to locate its U.S. headquarters in Greenville, South Carolina, executives from BMW, the German automotive firm, approached Clemson University to establish a joint initiative.
With investments from the university, the state, and BMW now totaling some $250 million, Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR) has created some 770 jobs, with spinoff and related industries expected to generate at least 11,000 more high-paying jobs in the near term, half of them in South Carolina.
Similarly, the Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the University of Maryland was founded as an alliance between the US Food and Drug Administration and the University of Maryland in 1996. Its International Food Safety Training Laboratory offers an innovative service by providing hands-on training in laboratory methods for food safety for professionals from many countries who export food into the United States. The triple-helix partnership of UM, the FDA, and private enterprise provides direct economic benefit to Maryland—to say nothing of the food safety it affords to Maryland consumers, and consumers far beyond Maryland’s borders as well.
The University of Oklahoma Research Campus began life as a former Naval Air Station that was decommissioned after World War II. After acquiring its 277 acres, the University developed it into a world-class campus for research and innovation. Says Cameron McCoy, executive director of the UORC’s Corporate Engagement Office, “OU now has more than $300 million invested in the Research Campus, and mini-clusters of research-based industries such as genomics, chemistry, health sciences, and nanosciences have grown to form centers of gravity.” These centers of gravity allow the Research Campus to grow organically, with new assets building upon old ones.
Says McCoy. “We have entrepreneurs working toward the economic development of the entire region.” Fifteen private companies now make their homes at the OU Research Campus, accounting for more than 750 jobs.
Another promising development in the community of university research parks comes from Connecticut. Recognizing the importance of education and research to economic prosperity, that state’s government has pledged $2 billion for the University of Connecticut’s “Next Generation Connecticut” initiative, which will expand education in materials science, physics, biology, and related disciplines. Notes Rita Zangari, director of the UConn Research Park, this initiative accompanies other state programs planned to build a new research hospital at a cost of more than $1 billion, and also involves creating incubator space for biotech and related spinoff industries. One facility, the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine, will employ 300 biomedical researchers, technicians, and support staff by 2020. Along with funding the hospital, the State of Connecticut has established a
$200 million state fund for biosciences investment, targeted particularly at startups. With this commitment, the University of Connecticut has risen rapidly in the last decade to a spot among the top twenty public universities in the nation. Says the state’s governor, Dannel P. Malloy, “UConn’s improvements in research and education are evidence that these investments are paying off, and will continue to do so for years to come.”
However funded, and no matter what incentives their partners receive, university research, science, and tech parks are important tools not only for creating and maintaining employment in the technology sector, but also as the places where discoveries happen and where the economy of the future will be born. Throughout the United States, those parks are flourishing, offering opportunities for investment and growth.