University Research Parks Pay Their Way and More

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Pam Marrone knows her way around the University of California (UC), Davis. She should. Marrone has started three biotechnology companies adjacent to the campus. Entotech, bought by Abbott Labs, was closed down. AgraQuest, acquired by Bayer, remains as does her latest company, Marrone Bio Innovations (MBI).

“It was a deliberate choice to locate Marrone Bio Innovations next door to UC Davis, and we have no plans of going anywhere else,” said Marrone. “Locating here was a strategic business decision. We look upon having access to the UC Davis staff , facilities, graduates and students as a competitive advantage.”

Marrone cited the ability to utilize sophisticated nuclear magnetic resonance imaging and fermentation equipment, and the expertise that goes with it, as vital for product discovery and development. MBI also takes full advantage of student interns for “the energy and enthusiasm they bring to our company.” This also gives the company first chance to off er positions to, as Marrone described them, “the best and brightest students from the top ranked agricultural university in the world.”

PARKS OFFER UNIQUE OPPORTUNITIES

Although other university spokespersons might argue with her ranking, they wouldn’t likely argue with her sentiments. The benefi ts she described and the results she demonstrated with the companies she has founded are the reasons the Purdue Research Park was founded in 1961 and the University of Wisconsin University Research Park was founded in 1985. They are also part of the reason the University of Nebraska, Lincoln (UNL) founded the Nebraska Innovation Campus in 2009. No doubt, the other 166 research institutions with research parks would agree.

“The essence of why we have research parks is the unique opportunity to facilitate richer relationships between private companies and the universities,” said Greg Deason, vice president, Purdue Research Foundation and former president, Association of University Research Parks.

Purdue research parks are a powerful economic force in the state. The West Lafayette, Ind., Research Park alone includes 725 acres and 327,000 square feet of high-tech business incubation facilities. Adding the three other facilities around the state means a total of more than half a million square feet of building space. Any way that you run the numbers, they are a success, with 200 companies claiming 4,100 employees at the four parks and producing $1.3 billion in economic impact to the state of Indiana.

In addition to having a nearby talent pool, including faculty, researchers and students, as well as advanced research facilities, Deason pointed to the availability of intellectual property for utilization and development.

“Companies that choose to be in a research park have the ability to really leverage those assets,” he said. “They can find new products, new R&D and enhance their product lines. Being physically near makes regular interaction easier.”

The companies who take up residence often find they gain peripheral benefits as well. Deason recalled Dow management reporting that scientists assigned to the park felt like they were on a scientific sabbatical due to the campus environment.

“They had faculty and even student interns challenging basic assumptions and inputs as to where to go with projects,” said Deason.

PARKS SPUR INNOVATION

University-affiliated research parks are filling other roles as well. Deason described an emerging trend where even major companies no longer invest in centralized research. While still doing product development work, they are looking to universities as sources of innovation and talent. What they also find are opportunities for growth through acquisition as workers and managers in mature companies interact with and collaborate with researchers also working with small start-ups. This networking and awareness exchange opens doors for mergers and collaboration, explained Deason.

Creating opportunities for networking, entrepreneurship and innovation among the faculty was central to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, opening University Research Park in 1985, said Greg Hyer, its associate director. Nearly 30 years later, the initial phase of development is nearly complete with all but five of the 220 acres developed. The park encompasses 37 buildings with 1.8 million square feet of space, housing more than 100 companies and 3,600 employees. 

“The University Research Park has been a vehicle for commercialization of campus research and has played a role in helping the state shift from agriculture and manufacturing, which were in decline, to new sectors of science and technology,” said Hyer. “If you look at the companies here, a majority has licensed technology from the university. This is research patented by the university that has created employment in the state and is also bringing revenue back to the campus.”

Employment runs the gamut from faculty active as chief science officers to post doctoral researchers who’ve decided to get involved in commercialization of companies rather than traditional teaching and research. Hyer said the park has also had an impact on prospective faculty.

“The fact that we have this facility here and actively encourage and promote the faculty to develop and commercialize technologies has helped recruit the next generation of researchers,” said Hyer.

“The old mold was teach, research and publish. The new generation wants to do those things, but they also want to put their research to work in the marketplace to benefit people.”

MERGING THE CORPORATE AND ACADEMIC WORLDS

The Nebraska Innovation Campus is up and running just a few years after the university, the city, the state and private companies came together to fix a problem. Nebraska was a perennial exporter of highly educated young people. Opportunities for employment were needed in the state, and the 250-acre state fairgrounds had become available. Situated between UNL’s two campuses, it was the perfect site to not only connect them, but also the corporate and academic worlds.

“As a university, we had a very strong academic and research program that aligned well with the agricultural strengths of the state,” said Prem Paul, vice chancellor for research and economic development, UNL. “While we were very good at conducting basic and applied research and passing it on to farmers and constituents, we hadn’t taken the information and created businesses with it. We needed to create an environment that would translate research power into new business, add value to our agricultural products, grow the economy and provide opportunities for our young people to stay in Nebraska.”

Paul is confident the NIC will meet the challenge. The first phase of construction is underway with a 360,000-square foot office, laboratory and greenhouse. It represents an $80 million investment by the state, private investors and the developer and $10.7 million in tax increment financing from the city of Lincoln. Con Agra and the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute will be early tenants. Paul knows success won’t happen overnight. It will take time as it did at Purdue, Wisconsin and the other older research parks UNL hopes to emulate.

“Our vision will be translated into reality over the next 25 years,” said Paul. “We’ve created a lot of excitement. Now we have to remind ourselves it will take time.”


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