Innovation Center designed to put Carolina North on the map
When visiting San Francisco, most tourists
flock to see the Golden Gate Bridge, the
internationally recognized symbol of the city, considered the engineering
marvel of its age when the bridge opened in 1937.
Seventy years later, the San Francisco marvel
that has caught the eye of Carolina’s Mark Crowell lies on the edge of the city
in Mission Bay. Crowell is associate vice chancellor for economic development
and technology transfer.
Once an industrial wasteland, Mission Bay is now home to a
satellite campus for the
University of California at San Francisco and, next to it, the burgeoning life
science complex that is being developed by Alexandria Real
Estate Equities of Pasadena, Calif.
Three of the seven buildings planned for the complex are
completed including a five-story
commercial building designed to cater to
companies of all sizes. Its second floor is a
“science hotel” built in configurable pods and designed for early-stage biotech
companies with five or fewer employees. Tenants can add extra pods or office
space as needed. The third and fourth floors are designed to accommodate
slightly bigger companies, while the fifth floor has high-end office space
leased to financial and venture capital institutions. The first floor features
retail stores and a wellness center.
Over the past year, the University has worked closely with
Alexandria to develop a model for the proposed Innovation Center at Carolina
North — work that Chancellor James Moeser and other University leaders
sought to advance by asking the Town of Chapel
Hill last month for approval of a special-use
permit separately from the future submission of the trustee-approved Carolina
As part of the proposed plan for Carolina’s Innovation
Center, Alexandria would build the center and retain ownership and hold
leasing rights for 40 years; then ownership of the building would revert to the
University, Crowell said. The
University, in turn, would provide the site at Carolina North for the
But Crowell emphasized that a partnership
with Alexandria would signify more than a land deal, more than developing a
building design or settling on a building location. This was about establishing
and preserving a relationship
with a unique partner that could do for
Carolina North what has been done in San Francisco with Mission Bay, or in
Manhattan with the East River Science Park or in Seattle with the Accelerator
“Alexandria has partnered in major projects
from coast to coast and around the world in such places as Scotland and India
ompany is now looking at China,” Crowell
said. “They are continually working with academic institutions, governmental
and non-governmental organizations, and major
multi-national corporations in projects that involve the development of
laboratory and business development space of the type that the Carolina
Innovation Center will provide. By having Alexandria and Joel
Marcus (its CEO) at the table with us, we become
part of a global network of top programs and facilities operating in this kind
Having the Innovation Center and working
with Alexandria to market it to potential
tenants will put Carolina on the map in many new and exciting ways, Crowell
said. “We will become a destination for research scientists and business
development concerns around the world who will want to come see it and what’s
happening within it. What a way to start
For this reason, University officials are eager to move
forward with plans for the new center.
Discussions with Alexandria began more than a year ago.
Although Marcus has not said anything about walking away from the project,
Crowell said, it is important to keep the
momentum because Alexandria is in such high demand around the country.
“Alexandria is a blue-chip, crème de la crème partner, and
we are trying to do everything we can to ensure we maintain steady and solid
progress with this project,” Crowell said.
Not just another incubator
In the same way that the Golden Gate Bridge stretched the
limits of engineering
70 years ago, the Innovation Center will move beyond the bounds of a
incubator that offers start-up companies
low-cost space, office support and mentoring.
In its Sept. 3 issue, Business Week highlighted a new
“supercharged” model in “Now Hatching: A New Type of Incubator with
Extra Oomph.” The article detailed how
scientists and academics who have the
technologies to start a new company often lack the business experience and
access to capital to keep their businesses afloat.
This new model has been called an accelerator
because venture capital firms back it. In the
Business Week article, Dinah Adkins, president of the National Business
likened it to “an incubator on steroids.”
That story quoted Crowell talking about how the Innovation
Center at Carolina North would use that kind of model. “What’s different
is you have a focused management team and early investors with deep enough
pockets to provide follow-on rounds of financing,”
The details of an accelerator were explained in a July 2007
paper, “Finding Business
‘Idols’: A New Model to Accelerate Start-Ups” sponsored by the Ewing Marion
The authors compared the growth of new entrepreneurs who are
changing the face of the venture capital industry to the way Simon Cowell
revolutionized the music business with his “American Idol” television series.
Whereas “your father’s business incubator” was a real estate
deal with start-ups as tenants who paid for shared overhead, an accelerator is
a full partnership, the paper said.
“The accelerator typically provides much more space and
common management services
to start-ups,” the paper said. “It helps form companies as legal entities,
interviews and hires the appropriate initial management team and lends its own
management expertise. In short, the accelerator becomes the ‘new company’
through seed-stage development.”
How does a company join an accelerator? Just as contestants
on American Idol audition their skills before a panel of judges, research
scientists must compete for a limited number of slots on the accelerator’s
In addition, accelerators often concentrate on specific
industries in order to assemble
people with similar educational and business backgrounds to come up with
cutting-edge commercial advances. The theory is that a group of potential
entrepreneurial superstars will hatch more and better ideas than individuals
in isolation will, the paper explained.
The first known accelerator was The
Foundry Inc., which opened in 1998 in Menlo Park, Calif., with a focus on
The company has raised more than
$200 million to launch 10 medical device
companies that were spun out of The Foundry’s
in-house research team or technology from outside inventors that the team
vetted. These 10 companies employ more than 350 people
and have already generated more than
$1 billion of value to their founders and
investors, the Kaufmann paper reported.
Only a handful of other accelerators exist or are being
developed, such as the Accelerator Corp. in Seattle specializing in
biotechnology that Alexandria also developed. The paper also mentioned the new
accelerator to be developed between UNC and Alexandria.
“Our impression is that the floodgate has opened and more
accelerators will be created nationally and internationally,” the authors said.
The longer view
Over the years, Crowell, along with Tony Waldrop, vice
chancellor for research and economic development, have emphasized that Carolina
is one of the few public universities without a research park or incubator
where University researchers could seek private grants with corporations to
test discoveries that have commercial potential.
In the past, University officials have emphasized the lack
of space as the major impediment for developing public-private partnerships. As
a result, Carolina’s strong research enterprise has largely been driven by
faculty member’s phenomenal success in securing federal grants from either the
National Institutes of Health (NIH) or the National Science Foundation (NSF).
Now, Crowell believes the research funding from the NIH and
NSF could also be at risk because of the growing push within these
organizations to support researchers who can demonstrate their capacity to turn
scientific discoveries into a marketable product.
That means the Innovation Center and the services it can
provide will be important
as a way for University researchers to
maintain and build upon the current level of NIH and NSF funding — and to
in new and expanded research funding
partnerships with corporations and
foundations also interested in investing
research funds in universities able to
translate research discoveries into products and services that help people,
Since he announced the goal of raising
$1 billion in external research funds by 2015, Moeser has emphasized the vital
role that Carolina North will play in that endeavor.
The process, Moeser told the Faculty Council last month, can
and should begin now by moving ahead with the Innovation Center.
“I believe our faculty need this facility and they need it
now,” Moeser said. “Many
faculty working on start-up companies have had to find space outside the
He also pointed out that because the center would be
privately developed by Alexandria, it would benefit the town of Chapel Hill by
generating property taxes.
A GLEAM IN CAROLINA'S EYE University officials have begun laying the groundwork for
proposed Innovation Center to be developed at Carolina North. Because
Carolina is one of the few public research universities without a research park
or incubator where researchers could seek private partnerships to test
discoveries that have commercial potential, Chancellor James Moeser believes
the Innovation Center is crucial. For the past year, the
University has worked closely with Alexandria Real Estate Equities of Pasadena,
Calif., to develop a model for the center. Alexandria has
created science and technology incubators around the world, from San Francisco
and Seattle to Cambridge and Washington, D.C., in the United States and
Scotland, Canada, China and India overseas.