By Ely Portillo, Charlotte Observer
KANNAPOLIS A billionaire pineapple company owner’s vision for the future of nutrition science rises next to Main Street in this former mill town, massive red brick buildings with soaring columns that contrast with surrounding one-story houses, shops and churches.
Dole Foods owner David Murdock, whose diet consists almost entirely of fruits and vegetables, opened the N.C. Research Campus in 2008. He bought and imploded the former Pillowtex mill complex after it closed in 2003 and cost more than 4,000 jobs, the largest mass layoff in state history.
But research has been slow to get off the ground, campus officials acknowledge. The recession hampered growth and dashed plans by some big corporations such as PepsiCo to open labs.
“I don’t think any of us expected the economy to come to a roaring halt the way it did. Our timing was just not right when we started the campus,” said Lynne Scott Safrit, project leader for the campus and president of Murdock’s Castle & Cooke development company in North Carolina.
Now, Safrit said it’s time for the campus to reboot. Earlier this month, Murdock committed $15 million a year in perpetuity to shore up the core lab’s finances and hire a new director with a worldwide profile to oversee and direct the campus.
The core lab will soon start conducting more independent research, of which Safrit said it has so far only done a small amount, mostly investigations into diabetes. And she said a major new announcement about a corporation opening facilities at the campus is expected within a month or so.
“We’d like to be further along. But I think we feel momentum now,” she said. “We want to be an institute that is really at the edge of nutritional science.”
While eight North Carolina universities and a handful of food corporations, including Dole, General Mills and Monsanto, are conducting research on site, the campus hasn’t met predictions of 200 companies located there. The campus has created about 1,000 jobs, officials say, but remains behind initial projections of 2,200 jobs within its first few years.
Two of four floors of the 311,000-square-foot core David H. Murdock Research Institute sit empty, shell space ready to be leased for labs or offices. The other two main research buildings are 70 percent and 83 percent occupied, and there is still room to construct several more buildings on the 350-acre site.
Murdock, 91, is a high-school dropout who rose to become a billionaire developer and buy Dole. His goal is nothing less than creating the world’s premier nutrition research complex, a scientific endeavor on par with the famed Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Maryland. Murdock, whose net worth is estimated at $3 billion, has spent $800 million to build the campus.
Much of the campus reflects the founder’s unique style. A mural with a huge eagle and 23-foot-wide heads of lettuce and other fruits adorns the core lab building’s rotunda. A table made of koa tree wood from the Hawaiian island Murdock used to own sits in the lobby. Ming vases line a lab building’s hallways. Murdock bought Indian tables inlaid with semi-precious stones to use as computer desks, but they’re so fancy they’ve remained unused, as no one wants to risk scuffing them.
After announcing his new annual endowment, Murdock said he hopes growth at the campus will accelerate. “It’s not that there are problems. I just want to end up having it do more scientific studies,” Murdock said. “I’m not putting down what we have. I just want to end up having all of (the studies) that we need and we don’t have all of them yet. We’re going to have them very soon.”
Lots of ‘tentacles’
The N.C. Research Campus isn’t one school with a single focus. Rather, it’s a conglomeration of different research centers, professors and companies, all studying different nutrition-related problems.
North Carolina A&T has a center that studies mold, food contamination and uses for wine byproducts. UNC-Chapel Hill’s Nutrition Research Institute studies the genetic basis for differences in metabolic diseases, and the N.C. State University Plants for Human Health Institute investigates health benefits from foods such as berries and walnuts.
“We all have different roles, but the interesting thing is everyone is focused on human health through the avenues of nutrition,” said Mary Ann Lila, director of the NCSU program.
Other programs tied to the N.C. Research Campus include the MURDOCK Study (it stands for Measurement to Understand the Reclassification of Disease Of Cabarrus/Kannapolis), an effort to collect and study blood and urine from thousands of local residence and find markers for disease. That study, conducted with Duke University, now has more than 11,000 participants enrolled.
The institution’s “tentacles,” as Murdock called them, extend beyond the immediate labs. The MURDOCK study’s samples are housed at a nearby facility, and Rowan-Cabarrus Community College has built a new facility to help train locals to work at the N.C. Research Campus. Kannapolis is building its new municipal center and police headquarters on land at the campus donated by Murdock. A 150 acre site a few miles away is earmarked for a biomanufacturing facility someday in the future.
Murdock paid to build the campus and the core lab that carries his name, but funding for the research comes from a variety of sources, including private companies, the government and academic institutions.
Records show that in 2012, the most recent year available, the nonprofit laboratory reported $11.4 million in revenue and almost $16 million worth of expenses, for a $4.6 million deficit.
The core lab houses scientific equipment, such as expensive microscopes and a nuclear magnetic resonance imaging machine that takes up a two-story room in the basement. The various schools and companies that have their own programs at the campus can use the lab equipment in common.
“It’s something that aggregates in one place the equipment we need, and on campus in Chapel Hill, I’d have to go to five or six places,” said Steve Zeisel, director of the Nutrition Research Institute.
More than just centralization, the scientists say that the chance to collaborate and trade ideas across institutions makes working in Kannapolis, instead of their own schools, worth the effort.
“Sometimes you get new ideas from being forced into a small town,” Zeisel said. “Here, you need to reach out just because you’re new, and you’ve been shaken up a little bit by coming to a different environment.”
For example, his researchers worked with Appalachian State University investigators and used sophisticated equipment on the campus to test whether exercise leads to an “afterglow” in which you continue burning calories after the activity ends (Good news: They found there is such an afterglow).
Leonard Williams, director of NCA&T’s Center for Excellence in Post-Harvest Technologies, echoed Zeisel. “It makes our job much easier,” he said. “We all don’t have the same skill sets and expertise. That makes it a wonderful opportunity to collaborate.”
Read more here: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2014/10/12/5233577/nc-research-campus-seeks-faster.html#.VDvh4cvu2po#storylink=cpy.