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January 2013
Creating Our Own Supercollider
By Pete Prunkl

     In his book, The Coming Jobs War, Gallup CEO Jim Clifton describes the global jobs war and what he thinks every leader must know about the future of job creation. Clifton maintains that local tribal leaders, super mentors and universities, need to come together, creating “supercolliders” for job creation.

     With regard to the first component, he says, “A city with highly talented local tribal leaders is essential for creating the jobs that will re-ignite America’s GDP and save its economy.”

     With regard to the second, he says that whether the U.S. stays a world leader or even solvent will be determined by three kinds of people: entrepreneurs, inventors, and super mentors described as university leaders, chancellors, presidents and deans in addition to bankers, venture capitalists, private equity executives, and government leaders.

     With regard to the third component, he continues, “A prime foundry or petri dish for the energy and brilliance of these people is the university system. Universities are a critical part of new-company formation everywhere in the world, but America has a decided advantage. Why? Because America’s top…universities are its most differentiating global strength in this war for jobs.

     “Great universities are the origin of most highly successful startups. Universities have, by design, the best ecosystem for entrepreneurship and innovation. More super mentors of all kinds are highly involved and swirling around the top…universities in a wider variety of activities than anywhere else.”

     This combination of active tribal leaders, entrepreneurial mentorship, and universities—he says, “This is America’s supercollider for sudden job growth.”

     Clifton seems to be describing the Charlotte region, its local leadership, its business community and UNC Charlotte—the Charlotte Research Institute, in particular.

 

Charlotte Research Institute

     UNC Charlotte has experienced several names changes since it was first created in 1946. First known as Charlotte Center and then Charlotte College, it was re-created by the state of North Carolina in 1965 as The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, more commonly UNC Charlotte. Its focus has always been service to the Charlotte region and its businesses.

     When Jim Woodward assumed the mantle of chancellor at UNC Charlotte in 1989, the University was 43 years old and still did not have a single doctoral program. The problem, he diagnosed, was speed or the lack of it. He likened the school to a Galapagos tortoise while other universities raced forward like English hares.

     “The Ph.D. is critical to continued growth in both research and service,” maintains Woodward, a Georgia Tech Ph.D. in engineering mechanics. Under his watch, UNC Charlotte ramped up its evolution.

     In 1993, four years into his chancellorship, UNC Charlotte inaugurated doctorate programs in electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and applied (not theoretical) mathematics. Today, the University boasts 19 doctorate programs turning out 100 new Ph.D.s a year.

     But Woodward thought more was needed. “We asked, ‘What could we do to be more aggressive in service?’” he says. “How could we make the University more available to the greater community?” The University’s answer was, “Research.”

     In 2000, UNC Charlotte broke ground on a 102-acre free-standing research campus adjacent to what is today the new football stadium. The Charlotte Research Institute (CRI) nicely blended the last two steps in university evolution—research and service. By 2014, there will be 12 buildings at CRI with 1.6 million square feet of academic, research, and partnership space.

     These evolutionary giant steps were capped by the Millennial Campus Financing Act of 2000. With that important legislation, the North Carolina General Assembly not only stimulated the development of research campuses throughout the state, they also lifted restrictions on who could work there.

     “We could bring companies to campus, charge them rent and collect the money,” says Woodward. “A research campus was another step in enabling UNC Charlotte to engage the community at the right level.”

     The Charlotte Research Institute is often confused with the act that created it. It is UNC Charlotte’s version of the “millennial campus” referred to in the act.

     “North Carolina State University calls its research campus Centennial Campus,” says UNC Charlotte Chancellor Philip Dubois “We have never formally taken the name Millennial Campus. We have always called it Charlotte Research Institute.”

     CRI connects businesses, researchers, governmental agencies, and academia with exceptional facilities and equipment to enhance intellectual capital, accelerate technology commercialization, cultivate the development of entrepreneurial and start-up ventures, create global educational and industry partnerships, and spur economic growth regionally and nationally.

     CRI supports interdisciplinary research centers that tackle complex problems in bioinformatics and genomics, biomedical engineering and science, optoelectronics and optical communications, precision metrology, cyber defense and network assurability, energy production and infrastructure, environment and sustainability, life sciences, nanoscale sciences, motorsports engineering, visualization, and biology and translational research.

     Most CRI buildings are concentrated just off of North Tryon Street, along Snyder Road, north of the new football stadium, but the campus also includes Woodward Hall, Cameron Applied Research Center and other academic buildings on the main campus.

     “CRI looks like a congressional district,” says Dubois. “Despite its amorphous shape, CRI’s message is crystal clear,” he continues. “The University is open to business.”

 

Open to Business

     Teaching, the first step in a university’s evolution, was not overlooked in the development of CRI. Companies that either come to CRI or spin out from faculty research often need graduate and undergraduate students. For students, that means combining the practical and the theoretical during the school year and part-time employment during the summer.

     Dr. Robert Wilhelm has directed the evolution of CRI since 2005 when he was named CRI’s executive director. Prior to that, he was a UNC Charlotte mechanical engineering professor. Wilhelm was appointed to his present position, vice chancellor for research and economic development, in 2011.

     The traditional yardstick for measuring a research director’s impact is how much he or she spends. CRI’s “spend” is currently $30 million with 80-82 percent from federal grants and 15 to 20 percent company-based grants.

     The Department of Defense accounts for most of CRI’s government dollars. Older and larger research campuses like North Carolina State University or Clemson University have a $150 to $180 million spend. Wilhelm’s goal for 2020 is to boost his “spend” to $50 million.

     “Bob Wilhelm is the perfect person for this job,” says Woodward. “He is a full professor, a status that was earned because of his outstanding teaching and research, and he started his own business. His role is to encourage and coordinate, to be engaged in the business community, learn what they need and bring that back to UNC Charlotte to get it done.”

     Wilhelm has had a place at the table for all decisions regarding CRI since 2005, Dubois’ first year as University chancellor. Decisions to significantly expand CRI to include a more than $4 million motor sports facility as well as to lobby city government for two light rail stops were initiated since that pivotal year.

     “UNC Charlotte has never been better prepared to engage the Charlotte regional business community than we are today,” says Bob Wilhelm. “We are ready, willing and able to help businesses advance their products and services.”

     Currently there are 16 small, rent-paying companies residing at the research campus. “These companies work with faculty members to produce prototypes or small quantities,” says Wilhelm. “We are not really in the quantity business here.”

     For techno-centric start-ups or spin-outs, CRI is a dream location. It combines high powered Ph.D.-level talent, top-end lab and office facilities, new equipment, a university library, campus eateries, information technology experts, Internet, maintenance and local phone service. Annual rent ranges from $19 to $21 a square foot.

     Cutting-edge insights, advice and assistance provided by faculty members may result in inventions with great commercial potential. That benefit belongs to CRI’s rent-paying business partners, not CRI or the University. CRI is a landlord with oodles of assets for its partners, but it doesn’t own their patents, trademarks, copyrights or ideas. If it did, few would come knocking on their door.

     That sweet deal takes a different track for the University’s faculty and staff. Professors must disclose their inventions to CRI’s technology transfer office, which reviews the invention and tries to determine the best strategy for commercializing it. That could involve filing for a patent or patent protection, but neither option shuts out an entrepreneurial professor. Faculty inventors may obtain a license to produce or commercialize a patented invention from the University.

     “We are a little different from other universities,” says Associate Director Brad Fach of the Office of Technology Transfer. “Our policy is to encourage faculty and staff to be entrepreneurs. We help them do that.”

 

Partnership, Outreach and Research

     In early 2014, Charlotte Research Institute is expecting a giant uptick in its real estate. That’s when the 96,000-square-foot PORTAL building opens its doors. A portal is an entry way and the new building is another way for business to enter into the life of the University. PORTAL is Wilhelm’s acronym for partnership, outreach and research to accelerate learning, and he played a large role in its design.

     Ten thousand square feet of PORTAL’s first floor will be devoted to a sensitive compartmented information facility (SCIF). The acronym is pronounced “skiff” and in defense and security parlance may be referred to as a Red Room. The “information” in SCIF is derived from federally-funded and classified CRI research. Access to the SCIF is limited and all activity, even casual conversation, is restricted from the public.

     There are 13 other SCIFs at UNC Charlotte. Foreign students are excluded from working in these sensitive areas. Like Greta Garbo, SCIF may want to be alone, but there will be other commercial enterprises and research facilities near its first floor sanctuary.

     PORTAL’s second and third floors will house Ventureprise, Inc., formerly the non-profit Ben Craig Center. Since 1986, the University-sponsored, CRI-affiliated Ben Craig Center has provided coaching, mentoring and business incubator services to startups, early-stage businesses and client tenants. Currently it has 22 client tenants; all are expected to make the move to PORTAL.

     President Paul Wetenhall explained the difference between CRI’s business partners and his client tenants. “For companies to succeed commercially they must produce a superior product and compete in the marketplace. That is not something a university research facility can figure out. Business incubators provide day-to-day help with strategies, plans and models. They build commercial capability.”

     Wetenhall encourages small businesses to move to PORTAL incubators where rent is even more reasonable than CRI’s research locations. A small commercial office runs $400 a month; larger space rents for $16.50 to $17 a square foot with all coaching, mentoring and normal office accessories included.

     Ventureprise has adopted a new mission to go with its new moniker: Help the Charlotte region establish a strategy for entrepreneurship. Wetenhall added flesh to that intriguing skeleton. He is working to recruit and retain inventors. Ventureprise wants to secure venture capital, provide access to public sources of money and encourage favorable public policy all on the inventor’s behalf.

     PORTAL’s benefit to business begins in 2014. Its benefit to tax-payers has already taken place. “It was built with receipts from federally funded research and long-term bonds,” says Dubois. “There were no state appropriations involved.”

 

Strategies for Entrepreneurship

     CRI has many success stories. One is Camber Ridge, a tire testing company. It graduated from CRI’s Motorsports and Automotive Research Center to CRI’s business incubator at Ventureprise. Dr. James Cuttino, a mechanical engineering professor on leave from the University, is its president and owner.

     Cuttino’s invention is a testing machine that pulls a tire around a 1.25 mile paved oval track at speeds approaching 200 miles per hour. Race fans and visitors to the NASCAR Hall of Fame know that tracks at American racing venues have different surfaces. The Camber Ridge track, now in the planning stages, will have four asphalt textures. The company is anticipating five to 10 technical jobs to initially run the facility and one to two engineering staffers.

     Cuttino’s potential clients are tire companies, auto and truck manufacturers, the defense industry, auto racing teams and suspension systems manufacturers. “His process is a more efficient and less costly simulation than building an entire automobile to test tires,” says Ventureprise’s Wetenhall.

     Cuttino was a finalist in the 2010 Charlotte Venture Challenge, a fact that contributes to his status as an up-and-coming entrepreneur. Formerly called Five Ventures Business Innovation Competition, the Challenge is CRI’s showcase for some of the region’s most successful early-stage companies.

     In 2012, 18 finalists out of 117 applicants were awarded cash prizes totaling $113,500. Each pitched their company to a panel of venture capitalists that winnowed the field to nine and then one overall winner. All applicants attend workshops that hone their verbal and oral presentation skills.

     Will Camber Ridge and other fledgling businesses survive the harsh realities of the world outside the campus? “We create the conditions for success and make introductions,” says Wetenhall. “But at the end of the day, the individual entrepreneur has to have the spirit and drive to make it happen.” That may be a researchable topic for UNC Charlotte’s psychology department. The social sciences now have a small folding chair around CRI’s techno-centric table. They may need more room.

     If Charlotte is prepared to engage its own “supercollider for job creation,” it appears that everything is in place to make our very own. It will ultimately depend upon civic leaders, business leaders, university officials, faculty and staff, entrepreneurs, innovators; they must participate and come forward with new ideas, challenges and insights from their own experience to boost innovative thinking in our regional economy.

    Charlotte can do this and have a significant impact on wealth and job creation nation within the global marketplace.

Pete Prunkl is a Greater Charlotte Biz freelance writer.
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