Jennifer ThomasStaff Writer-
The last five years have brought a mix of accomplishments and challenges for the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis.
The 350-acre biotech hub opened in October 2008 — just as the economy faltered. State funding to support campus operations was restricted, and companies pulled back from research and development initiatives.
Despite those odds, the campus has grown to include more than 1 million square feet of lab and office space. It is home to operations of eight N.C. universities and Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, as well as private companies such as General Mills Inc., Monsanto Co., LabCorp and Dole Foods Inc.
The focus is now on growth, in terms of new buildings as well as additional tenants and research partners, says Clyde Higgs, vice president of business development at the N.C. Research Campus and campus developer Castle & Cooke North Carolina.
The campus also is poised to play a role in economic development in the Charlotte region, Higgs adds. He notes it is critical to raise the profile of the campus, while helping the local community understand its value.
Higgs recently spoke with the Charlotte Business Journal about the research campus and its future. Following are edited excerpts.
What’s your take on where things stand with the evolution of the campus?
I’m very, very optimistic. I think we’ve hit some major milestones over the last five years. Definitely touting the nine universities and colleges — that’s huge for us. I’m not sure I fully appreciated the effort that it takes to make that happen. I think that’s definitely been our selling point to have those tenants on campus.
Obviously, the milestone on hitting that million square feet of space on campus. That’s huge. We’ve put up a million square feet in less than five years. That’s lightning speed. We’re about 90% leased right now.
We’ve learned that our model is very unique. We’ve started to see some folks starting to imitate things that we’re doing here at the campus. They’re amazed that we can actually pull together all of these academic institutions on one campus. They think that’s a coup in and of itself. If you look at other regions and other research parks, it’s typically anchored by one institution. We definitely had more hits than misses.
How did you overcome the challenges that came with the economic downturn?
That was a hard time for everyone. One of the things that we looked at was what could we do to create credibility for the N.C. Research Campus. At that time, we already had a good critical mass of researchers here on campus. We didn’t focus on our buildings and infrastructure; we focused on the research side.
We had some really big wins from some of the grants that faculty and staff received here in Kannapolis, from Gates Foundation grants to significant (National Institutes of Health) funding.
What type of growth do you anticipate as the economy rebounds?
We feel like we’ve turned that corner from a growth perspective. With some of the new announcements — the (IT company) DataChambers deal is humongous for us. The city of Kannapolis and city hall (building) is another significant deal for us. A lot of the activity you see in the future, even if it’s not nutrition or health-care research, is going to be focused on a kind of head count.
Building out the development side of the NCRC, this time next year, it’s conceivable to add another 300 or so people here on campus because of those two main buildings.
How do you sell the campus if it’s at 90% capacity?
Of the 350 acres of land here on the campus, we could probably build another 2 million square feet of space. We still have capacity to build new facilities. That’s something we’re just going to have to look at in the future.
Will you build speculative space?
That’s definitely something that we’re not ruling out. We’re going to have to think about what’s next. The market feels good. Some of the bites that we’re getting, there are partners and tenants that are wanting some ready-to-move-in space, so we’re probably going to have to think about building some more inventory here on campus.
How do you convince businesses this is where they need to invest?
We’re pretty confident that we have probably some of the best resources all under one roof, anywhere in the country. We start talking about value proposition, part of that conversation is for companies, “You can come here, and it’s a one-stop shop for more of your research endeavors.” From the instrumentation side — because we’re second to none when it comes to core lab equipment, analytical sciences and so forth — companies can have access to that. From a capabilities perspective, we have everything from what you do on the research side, from what you grow, all the way to the clinical trials side and all the way in between. When we start talking to companies, it’s about “Hey, this is a one-stop shop. You don’t have to go to California, to Michigan, to Boston, to other places. It’s all here in Kannapolis.”
Do you feel like the campus is a selling point when it comes to economic development?
All of the sudden, our region really has a stronghold in the life sciences, the research side of things. If you look at some of the major announcements of the last six months, even if those companies aren’t landing in Kannapolis, if they’re landing in the region, they’re still working with Kannapolis in some way.
They’re still working with us and the conversations started with, “Did you know we have the N.C. Research campus in our backyard?” We want just your average, everyday person to say, “Yeah, we have a biotechnology campus in Kannapolis, and they have all of these universities and companies that are working in nutrition, agriculture and human health.” We want that to be a part of the language, a narrative of the region.
Why is it important for biotech to be a focus for Charlotte?
Probably every state in the union is trying to come up with some biotech strategy. I think it’s important that every region needs to have a diverse economy. Having health care, biotech, energy, finance, information technology is key for having a strong economy.
What makes us different is that we have this kind of focus on nutrition and agriculture. We feel like we hit a home run with that focus. There’s a lot of folks that are doing really neat things in the various areas of biotechnology, but I think we’re really at the middle of these national and international conversations that are being had about health care, wellness and how to create better health outcomes.
How does the campus evolve over the next decade?
That million square feet — hitting that bar in five years — that is incredible when it comes to a project like this. That typically doesn’t happen. That’s why I think it’s always important for folks to have the right measuring stick as to how these things develop.
Looking forward, I definitely see significant research coming out of the labs here on campus. We’ve already hit some major home runs with some of the publications that have been produced here. But I definitely see more name-brand companies coming to the campus and expanding here.
Even on the academic side, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say we’ll have universities and colleges outside of North Carolina having a presence here, too. I definitely see that in the works.
Jennifer Thomas covers retail, health care and education for the Charlotte Business Journal.