Atrium Health

Research campus in Kannapolis poised to become innovation hub

October 06, 2013
Charlotte Observer
Lukas Johnson
  • More information About the North Carolina Research Campus The campus in downtown Kannapolis – where the former Cannon Mills Co. Plant No. 1 once stood – has more than one million square feet of lab and office space. It encompasses five buildings and the research power of nine universities and colleges in North Carolina. It also houses General Mills, Sensory Spectrum, Monsanto, LabCorp and Dole Foods Inc. Its stated mission is to improve human health through transformational research at the intersection of agriculture, nutrition and human health. Details:

The construction of two ready-to-go laboratories serves as a sign of accelerated growth at the North Carolina Research Campus.

Since the biotechnology hub opened in 2008, it has become one of the world’s leading produce and nutritional research centers.

After both new lab spaces are open early next year, the area will move a step close to solidifying its reputation as a center for public and private partnerships.

“Having a space where companies can basically plug in their equipment and start working is a strategic timing advantage that puts Cabarrus County on the top of many people’s short lists when they are looking for a place to start up or move their operations,” said Margie Bukowski, senior vice president of the Cabarrus Economic Development Corp.

Ronnie Bryant, president and CEO of the Charlotte Regional Partnership, said collaboration is not only a hallmark of our region, but a great asset.

“Nowhere are the fruits of that collaboration better displayed than at the North Carolina Research Campus, where some of the best scientific minds in academia and the private sector work together to find answers to health questions and bring those solutions to market,” said Bryant.

“The new laboratory space will attract additional intellectual capital to our region,” Bryant said, “and enhance our growing reputation in the biomedical/nutrition field.”

Some of most renowned scientists in the world conduct ground-breaking research daily, according to the website of the 350-acre, public-private campus in Kannapolis. Area leaders say the lab space helps make the campus a vital asset to the region, and demand is so high for lab space that the units are already 80 percent booked.

The first ready-to-go laboratory space is scheduled to open this fall with tenants that include a startup biotech company developing a diagnostic product related to diabetes, as well as General Mills and Carolinas Medical Center. The second space is expected to open in early 2014.

The labs are 1,500 square feet each and include administrative areas, bench tops, fume hoods, sinks and storage. They are on the third floor of the David H. Murdock Core Laboratory building.

The development of the new labs has come on the heels of continued growth on campus in recent years.

In 2012, the Cabarrus Health Alliance – the health department for Cabarrus County and surrounding areas – opened a 65,000-square-foot headquarters adjacent to the research campus. N.C. State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute opened three greenhouse facilities that same year.

The 60,000-square-foot medical plaza, which houses Carolinas Healthcare System, opened months ago. Construction of the 50,000-square-foot DataChambers building is set to begin in 2014, and the Kannapolis Municipal Center is scheduled to break ground Oct. 29.

Several big-name partners – including multiple North Carolina universities, as well as Monsanto and Dole Nutrition Research Laboratory – have a presence on the campus. They share the goal of enhancing human health through studying personalized nutrition, phytochemicals, disease diagnostics, food microbiology, agricultural and sensory evaluation, among other pursuits.

Clyde Higgs is the vice president of business development at Castle and Cooke, a privately held company led by Dole Foods billionaire David Murdock, founder of the research campus and namesake of the core lab and research institute there.

“There are several reasons for the surge,” said Higgs. “The economy seems to be getting better; there has been a backlog demand of speculative lab space that doesn’t really exist in the greater Charlotte market; and the North Carolina Research Campus is well positioned on the preventive medicine side, which is a national focus.”

Within a decade, Higgs said, he hopes the campus will broaden its scope even more.

“What we are trying to do … is create a thriving innovation ecosystem,” said Higgs. “Oftentimes we tout the science and technology that is occurring here, but we welcome all types of companies, especially the support organizations – law, accounting and finance – to be included in our roster.

“We were especially excited to announce our new data center project being created by Data Chamber, a company based in Winston-Salem,” Higgs said. “This new facility will start at 50,000 square feet and could grow to 100,000 square feet. Although they are not a nutrition or life science company, they contribute to the ecosystem that we are trying to develop.”

Additional academic partners, including universities and colleges, also are welcome partners, said Higgs. No matter who ends up establishing a base on the campus, they all have potential to spur further economic development.

“Our consortium model of facilitating industry/academic partnerships will make Kannapolis, and the region, a hub for public/private partnerships in nutrition and agriculture,” said Higgs.

“This year, we launched the Plant Pathways Elucidation Project, or P2EP, which is a groundbreaking $1.5million program that engages college students from across North Carolina in a first-of-its-kind education and research endeavor.”

The P2EP program is fueled by one of the largest consortiums of academic and industry organizations ever assembled at the campus, said Higgs. University scientists, industry leaders and college students will explore plant pathways to answer why and how fruits and vegetables benefit human health.

“The program will be expanded to include additional partners next year because of its popularity,” said Higgs.

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