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Economic Development
May 5, 2016

Skilled Workers, Capital And Collaborative Networks Are Pillars Of Economic Innovation

Sponsored Content provided by Daniel G. Baden - Executive Principal, Marine Biotechnology in North Carolina (MARBIONC)

The Wilmington area was one of five communities chosen to demonstrate the value of close collaborations among industry, local government and higher education as part of the InnovateNC initiative. A major reason for our region’s selection was the role of UNC-Wilmington’s CREST Research Park in promoting science and in helping to break down barriers between institutions.
 
Still, as with anything new, the devil is in the details, and as InnovateNC has gotten off the ground all the local participants have had to think hard about just what it all means. In addition to the university, the local partners are the City of Wilmington, the Town of Leland, New Hanover and Brunswick counties, Cape Fear and Brunswick community colleges, and the private company Castle Branch and its TekMountain business incubator.
 
In mid-April, visitors from the four other InnovateNC cities came to Wilmington for a close-up look and a series of conversations about how scientific, technical and business innovation can help local economies grow.
 
First item on the agenda was a presentation by Gary Vidmar, Leland’s economic development director, about how our thinking has evolved since InnovateNC began last year.
 
The starting premise was that marine biotechnology would be the defining core of our collaboration, the basis for all our efforts to create a growing, 21st-century economy in southeastern North Carolina. After all, Vidmar explained, it’s a well-developed science, for which UNCW has earned a world-wide reputation. The work done here is multi-faceted, pointing toward many possible commercial applications. We have a strong core of skilled personnel in our faculty, world-class research facilities, a motivated, engaged student body, and many talented, creative alumni. Through many of the private companies that are co-located on our CREST Research Campus, our researchers’ work is being licensed and developed for market applications.
 
And yet, Vidmar told our visitors, “Marine biotechnology is a narrow sector.” While we have a significant number of people working in the field, it remains a small portion of the region’s economy. From a business standpoint, marine biotechnology-based ventures promise high returns but come with high risks. The field requires a highly educated, specialized work force and very expensive work spaces in the form of laboratories and research vessels. Commercial spinoffs from marine biotechnology, he said, can be research-intensive and require “a high bandwidth” of technological investment. All that, he concluded, “is a big hurdle to startup companies.” That’s not to say we aren’t pushing ahead, and hard, to encourage these sorts of ventures. But we recognize that they may not generate as many jobs as our growing region needs.
 
So the InnovateNC team broadened our focus to include other academic disciplines, notably the broader life science community and marine technology, to be more inclusive of our partner schools. Cape Fear Community College, for example, has a strong focus on marine technologies and Brunswick Community College is one of the state’s leaders in applied aquaculture (which is biotechnology). This broader definition of the InnovateNC partnership’s academic focus offered many more opportunities for public-private collaborations and for job creation.
 
Ultimately, we chose to broaden our focus still more, to encompass “all creative innovation endeavors,” as Vidmar put it. “This will create a much broader base that any individual startup can feed into.”
 
Now that we have defined our scope, Vidmar said, “Everyone’s finally starting to connect the dots.” To make it easy to visualize those pieces, we are talking about a pyramid, with three levels of innovation. The base is that broadest, most inclusive definition of innovative enterprises (coined “unity of purpose”), whether specifically scientific or not. Second is the more specialized range of disciplines that fall under the marine technology and life sciences categories. The pyramid’s tip is marine biotechnology per se, as practiced at UNCW. This upper box is termed “sector diversity” because in addition to providing development for many biotechnology sub-sectors, the paradigm can be repeated. Thus sector diversity grows, as “unity of purpose” becomes engrained into southeastern North Carolina’s innovation culture.
 
To support economic growth in all three levels we must have and develop three “core” or “pillar” resources.
 
First is access to an educated, skilled work force. That involves the public schools in the two participating counties, both community colleges, and UNCW. Additional specific training or retraining programs can be envisioned to optimize development of each sector.
 
Second is access to capital. Attracting interest from venture capitalists and “angel investors” is a chief challenge for Wilmington. This region lags far behind the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill triangle in funding for startup ventures, as the InnovateNC visitors heard from other speakers during their visit. Further, the region requires educated and engaged capital sources to match the unity of purpose and the need for understanding of the sectors being developed.
 
The third pillar is “access to networks,” as Vidmar said, “that can overcome barriers that industries or governments can create.”
 
That network concept is one of the chief purposes for which InnovateNC was created. To use a favorite business buzzword, we are determined to break down those “silos” that keep creative, innovative people in different organizations from talking, and listening, to one another. Thinking outside the silo is essential to the sort of innovation that can drive a forward-looking technology-based economy.
 
UNCW CREST Research Park is a front-runner in marine biotech research and development. Researchers are exploring the potential of natural products derived from the sea to treat or cure human diseases and meet other important needs.
 
Discover why rising biotechnology and life sciences groups from all over the country are moving to UNCW CREST Research Park. UNCW CREST Research Park offers top-notch commercial laboratories available for lease at affordable rates, flexible terms, and innovative product development opportunities that are unmatched by any other park. Connect with CREST at [email protected] today.
 

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