A Master Plan for Technological Innovation in North Carolina's Piedmont Triad

A Master Plan for Technological Innovation in North Carolina's Piedmont TriadThe seed of a unique research institution is germinating in Greensboro, NC. The gracious southern city is already home to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (N.C. A&T) and The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) - each with a rich history that dates back to the 19th century. Now, the two schools have come together in the 21st century with a bold plan to build a joint campus - called

Apr 1, 2007
The Scientist Staff

The seed of a unique research institution is germinating in Greensboro, NC. The gracious southern city is already home to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (N.C. A&T) and The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) - each with a rich history that dates back to the 19th century. Now, the two schools have come together in the 21st century with a bold plan to build a joint campus - called Gateway University Research Park - that promises to transform both scientific research and the local economy in unprecedented ways.

The joint venture will build on the strengths of both schools, according to John Merrill, the park's executive director. "We have special expertise in the life sciences, nanotechnology, advanced materials, computational science, and bioengineering," he says, "and our goal is to develop a collaborative environment with private industry and other agencies in these and other areas of research."

Situated on two 75-acre campuses, the park will offer 850,000 square feet of new space for shared research projects and programs to be developed over the next 20 years. The North campus, located northeast of Greensboro, has eight buildings that are now being renovated. The currently undeveloped South campus, located on the southeast edge of the city, will have a groundbreaking in spring 2007. Both of the new campuses are within 10-20 minutes from the main N.C. A&T and UNCG campuses and downtown Greensboro.

The new campuses are designed to be people friendly, according to Merrill. "We want to encourage interactions between people, so they'll come out of their offices and laboratories," he says. The buildings of the North campus are nestled within a woodsy backdrop, whereas the plans for the South campus envision a tree-lined pedestrian walkway that winds through the middle of park-like surroundings. Nearby parks and an arboretum should also provide fertile settings where people can share ideas in open space.

"We want to attract people who recognize the value of crossover opportunities - where companies, researchers, and students work together for mutual benefit," Merrill says. That might involve the use of cutting-edge laboratory equipment, or finding a faculty member who is an expert on a specific problem, or working with a student who might be a future employee. There is "value added" for companies that interact with universities, according to Merrill. "In my experience, organizations that take advantage of such situations are generally pleased with the results," Merrill says.

When completed, the park is expected to employ 2,000 people and contribute $50 million per year to the economy of the 11-county Piedmont Triad region, which includes the cities of Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point. The objective is to improve the industries in the region today, while helping to invent the industries of tomorrow, according to Merrill. "We expect a 'win-win-win' scenario for everyone involved - the companies, the universities, and the community."

High Research Activity

Both N.C. A&T and UNCG are recognized as "high research activity" institutions by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The combined expertise of the two universities is distributed across many academic departments in the arts, the sciences, and in professional schools.

"We are well known in areas such as advanced materials, nanotechnology, computational science, and engineering," says N. Radhakrishnan, vice chancellor for research and economic development at N.C. A&T.

The school also has significant strengths in other areas, including biotechnology, energy and the environment, information sciences and technology, logistics and transportation systems, public health, leadership, and community development. All these endeavors are aligned in eight research clusters that bring faculty together across disciplines to develop large research projects.

These research clusters run in parallel with a number of multidisciplinary centers and institutes at N.C. A&T, which develop partnerships with private and corporate sponsors, educational institutions, and government agencies. This includes two US Army Centers of Excellence that are working on projects to enhance the capabilities of soldiers on the battlefield.

The prolific research accomplishments at N.C. A&T generated revenues from licenses last year, and the granting of 15 new patents, with 14 more patents pending. "Our outreach and technology-transfer office has done a great job of converting research into intellectual property and licensing deals," says Radhakrishnan. Indeed, there are now plans to spin off a couple of nanotechnology companies based on discoveries at N.C. A&T.

"We have just scratched the surface of our potential here," says Radhakrishnan. "The future of research will be in the biosciences, information sciences, and nanotechnology, and I think N.C. A&T will play a big role in that future."

The breadth and depth of the research pursuits at N.C. A&T are complemented by the life-science activity at UNCG, which has a research agenda that builds on the university's commitment to translational technology. A $40 million state-of-the-art science building, which opened in 2003, provides 172,000 square feet of space for research, teaching, and creating knowledge.

The life sciences at UNCG span 15 departments, 12 laboratories, 3 clinics, 7 centers, and more than 160 faculty. The school offers many bachelor's, master's, and doctoral programs, including a biotech concentration, a dietetics internship, a doctorate in nutrition and a degree in genetic counseling.

Across the disciplines, UNCG scientists are framing broad questions that can provide the foundation for innovation and understanding. Computational chemistry, biology, and computer-assisted drug design are unlocking the therapeutic potential of small molecules in biological systems. Research on the nature of chronic health conditions - cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer - focuses on the impact of specific compounds (including drugs, foods, and toxicants) and the role that genomic medicine can have in managing these conditions.

The potential and the opportunities for research in the biosciences at UNCG have never been better, according to Rosemary C. Wander, associate provost for research and public/private sector partnerships at UNCG. "It's all coming together - the construction of the new building, the commitment from the administration, the relationship with N.C. A&T, and now the plans for the new Park," she says. "The stars have lined up to produce a very special place."

Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering: A Promise for the Future

By some accounts, nanotechnology is destined to replace much of today's technology. The science of controlling the structure of matter at the nanometer scale (the size of small molecules) offers rich possibilities beyond the hyperbole in the media. Far from the science-fiction fantasies that conceive of tiny, self-replicating machines overwhelming all life on the planet, real nanotechnology is already employed in useful products such as flash memory, computer chips, clothing, and cosmetics.

Even more sophisticated manipulations of matter, involving precise molecule-by-molecule control, might be just around the corner. Such technologies promise innovative medical diagnostic tools and sensors, small mechanical devices, printable electronic circuits, and countless products yet to be conceived.

Gateway University Research Park expects to be at the forefront of these new technologies with the creation of a new institution, The Joint School for Nanoscience and Nanoengineering (JSNN). The school will be a shared academic unit of N.C. A&T and UNCG. A request for funding for the Joint School from the Board of Governors of The University of North Carolina System is currently before the North Carolina Governor and General Assembly.

The JSNN will be the cornerstone of the park, according to Janice G. Brewington, interim provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at N.C. A&T. "This is an exciting development for N.C. A&T, UNCG, the region, and the state," she says.

The JSNN will be recruiting highly accomplished scientists and engineers who will complement the outstanding experts in nanotechnology and nanobiotechnology currently at N.C. A&T and UNCG. In collaboration with industry professionals, the school hopes to fuel a spirit of entrepreneurship in concert with the latest discoveries in nanoscience. The JSNN will also have a vital educational mission: training students to conduct basic and applied research in nanoscience and nanoengineering. It will offer a joint interdisciplinary PhD degree and a joint professional Master of Science degree. It also expects to strengthen the representation of nanoscience in undergraduate and K-12 education, while providing training for scientists and engineers already in the workforce.

Two buildings will support the nanoscience efforts on the South campus. The construction of a core laboratory building on the South campus will be completed by the spring of 2009. Pending funding, it is expected that a nanoscience building will be erected by 2011. The first master's degree students will be admitted in August 2008, and the first doctoral students are expected to be admitted to the program in August 2009.

"Although there may be many groups in the country working on nanotechnology, the Joint School will be one of a kind," says A. Edward Uprichard, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at UNCG.

Part of that uniqueness stems from the demographic composition of the two universities. UNCG was historically a women's school, and it still has a large proportion of female undergraduates. On the other hand, N.C. A&T has a long history as a historically black university (HBCU), and it now produces more African Americans with doctorates and undergraduate degrees in engineering than any other school in the nation. That combination should be attractive to companies that wish to work with the best and the brightest from all backgrounds.