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Economic Development
Jan 28, 2016

UNCW In Partnership To Build Innovation Ecosystem

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

For most in our coastal business community, the thought of marine biology conjures images of laboratories equipped with beakers and academics wearing lab coats. Even for those who are somewhat aware of the work in marine and life sciences under way in Southeastern North Carolina, often the assumption is that this effort has little practical application for everyday businesses. Perhaps the biggest reason for this sentiment is that all too often the players in these areas work in isolation.
Not long ago, MARBIONC was able to assist a small business in Wilmington in a way that helps to illustrate this point. Amanda Jacobs, the owner of Sea Love Sea Salt Company, recently talked to UNC Wilmington marketing students about the challenges of starting her business, which produces pure salt using water drawn from the shores of Wrightsville Beach. As she outlined the challenges of her growing business, which relies exclusively on solar evaporation, she highlighted the potentially expensive regulatory requirement for determining the nutritional values of her product.
As fate would have it, Marlon Weems, a member of the MARBIONC Community Advisory Board, happened to be sitting in on Amanda's UNCW talk. As Weems later explained, "I offered to put her in touch with MARBIONC. Since her product comes from the sea, I thought they may be able to assist her." Not surprisingly, she was unfamiliar with MARBIONC, let alone that we could be a resource for her business. Using data from our analysis of the region, I was able to provide Jacobs with the needed analytical data at no cost, based on GPS coordinates for the area where she gathers her water.
This story underscores the fact that several organizations are hard at work, focused on bettering conditions for innovation in our region. Their goal is to create a nurturing environment for startup businesses that encourages sustainable economic development, enhances the ability to recruit new investment, and supports basic and applied research. Until now, these efforts have not been efficiently coordinated in a way that would generate awareness in the community or result in maximum benefit to everyone.
That is what our region’s participation in the state's InnovateNC program is aimed at correcting: to pull these key players together to create a healthy economic “ecosystem” centered on the commercial development of marine and life science. InnovateNC is an initiative of the Institute for Emerging Issues at N.C. State University, along with other partners. The Wilmington/Carolina coast region is one of five communities selected, out of 18 applications from across the state, to participate in this two-year project.
The participating local players are UNCW, including our CREST Research Park and the university’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship; the city of Wilmington and the town of Leland; New Hanover and Brunswick counties; Cape Fear and Brunswick community colleges; and the North Carolina Biotech Center’s southeastern office.
This initiative is focused on one of greater Wilmington’s “economic clusters,” marine and life sciences. This is an area that has already been identified as an essential focus for the region’s economic development strategies.
An economic cluster is a critical mass of companies in a particular line of business, as well as its network of suppliers, customers and institutional supports. The term also includes the idea of how resources – human, informational, financial and educational – move among those institutions.
In our case, this promising economic cluster includes UNCW’s MARBIONC laboratories and CREST Research Campus, community college programs in marine technology and aquaculture, and a number of private companies doing research and development work in related fields.
In 2013, New Hanover County and the city of Wilmington hired the consulting firm Garner Economics to evaluate our community’s economic development prospects. Among the Garner report’s recommendations were better support for small businesses and startups and a focus on marine and life sciences. The report also identified weaknesses in how business, government, economic development organizations and higher education institutions interact and work together.
Garner’s recommendations were specific: that the Cape Fear region should build on UNCW’s successes in basic science and that we actively assist small businesses and startups. Commercialization of research findings should be a fundamental tenet of economic development, the report said.
This recommendation fits well with two underlying trends in research. As government support dwindles, corporate sponsorship becomes more important. Increasingly, commercial enterprises are outsourcing research and development to third parties, which can strengthen economic clusters in cities like Wilmington.
These are some of the challenges we identified as we entered the InnovateNC process:

  • Steering much more capital investment into startup businesses in the Wilmington area;
  • Encouraging more innovative firms to locate in Wilmington and commercialize much of the research being done here;
  • Breaking down barriers that keep key regional players from working more collaboratively;
  • Improving understanding among local leaders and the public about our region’s existing marine and life sciences “cluster.”
In explaining what we are trying to accomplish, a useful analogy is to the tremendous success over the past half-century of business-government-academic collaborations in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Research Triangle. A chief goal of our project is to achieve a comparable level of recognition of the Wilmington area’s assets.
What we want InnovateNC to help us do is to better identify the marine and life sciences cluster, developing it into an “ecosystem” that supports, develops and expands business activity in our region. Hand in hand with those objectives, specific policy recommendations to help guide local governments and other partners must come.
An important part of the process is what InnovateNC describes as “unparalleled data-driven decision making.” With the city of Wilmington as the lead partner, we will create an “Innovation Council” to map and track the progress of innovation in our region. Likewise, a robust media strategy, presentations at important meetings and conferences, and public-awareness events will help to tell our story both locally and statewide.
This Innovation Council consists of 25 to 30 stakeholders from both public and private sectors. Their marching orders are to:
  • Build a talent pipeline to home-grow, recruit and retain entrepreneurial innovators.
  • Develop a network of resources that will work together to enable innovators to grow and thrive.
  • Find ways to measure how innovation and entrepreneurship is affecting neighborhoods and communities throughout the region.
  • Coordinate economic development policies at all levels of government with the goal of cultivating entrepreneurs.
  • Tell the stories of our community’s innovation clusters, both locally and on a national or even global level.
UNCW CREST Research Park is a frontrunner 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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