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harlotte Forecast 2013: Research & Development

December 14, 2012

By: Jennifer Thomas, Charlotte Business Journal

Research has become a fundamental part of the Charlotte region’s economy.

And its presence will take several big steps forward in 2013 — from UNC Charlotte to Johnson C. Smith University to Carolinas HealthCare to the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis. All have significant research-oriented initiatives that will grow next year.

UNCC recently announced it wants to grow its research budget to $50 million by 2020, up from $30 million. Bob Wilhelm, UNC Charlotte vice chancellor for research and economic development, sees opportunities in fields such as energy, manufacturing, informatics, defense, medical-oriented research and education. “We’ve always put emphasis on research. Now we want to put more,” Wilhelm says.

The Charlotte region has developed strong clusters in sectors such as energy, life sciences and bioinformatics, says Corie Curtis, interim director of the N.C. Biotechnology Center’s Charlotte office. “It enriches the whole experience, creates a culture of change and invites discovery,” she says. “I think Charlotte’s well-poised to take on that type of a role.”

University research will play a key role in supporting economic growth, Wilhelm says. In January 2014, UNC Charlotte will open the PORTAL building — an acronym for Partnership Outreach and Research to Accelerate Learning. The $37 million facility will seek to help startup businesses grow and provide access to key university resources, including faculty members and equipment.

“We’re always looking for ways we can impact companies that are here,” Wilhelm says.

A strong research presence gives the region more credibility when companies consider locating here, says Ronnie Bryant, chief executive of the Charlotte Regional Partnership.

He notes many companies will visit with educational institutions as part of the selection process and consider long-term partnership potential.

“This region is truly beginning to position itself as a mecca for research and technologies that will have not only significant implications in the near future, but also long-term benefits for not only this region, but the world,” Bryant says.

That’s why efforts to expand education in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — are critical. Johnson C. Smith University broke ground in October on a $25 million science center to house its expanding STEM program.

It’s also important to promote opportunities for collaboration at the N.C. Research Campus.

The Kannapolis research hub had an economic impact of at least $14 million last year, says Michael Todd, executive director of the UNC System’s operations at the campus.

“We’re really starting to make significant and sustained impacts on the local economy,” he says.

The 350-acre biotech campus houses operations of eight N.C. universities and Rowan-Cabarrus Community College. Its research focuses on health, nutrition and agriculture.

And there is optimism about what 2013 will bring, says Clyde Higgs, vice president for business development for campus developer Castle & Cooke North Carolina.

He anticipates making announcements about new tenants as companies continue to visit the campus to explore potential partnerships.

That interest led Castle & Cooke to invest in 1,500 square feet of speculative lab space, which will be available in March. The goal is to attract small-to-medium-size companies.

“It just gave us the confidence this was a good investment to make,” he says.

Higgs notes some existing companies on campus are looking to expand. At the same time, he’s looking to recruit additional higher-education partners to the campus.

“That truly is the foundation to the campus having the educational partners here. It’s a much easier sell when you go to corporations to say you have a strong academic base,” Higgs says.

Construction of a medical-office building will be completed in 2013. Carolinas HealthCare System will be the primary tenant. That Charlotte-based health-care system remains focused on expanding its medical research with more than 660 clinical trials under way. It also opened the Levine Cancer Institute in October to advance cancer care and research.

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