CHAPEL HILL – Chancellor Carol Folt refers to UNC Chapel Hill’s medical/pharmaceutical research complex as “a biomedical juggernaut” – and others are starting to take notice of North Carolina’s university-driven research economy as well.
The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, for example, recently ranked North Carolina the top state in the nation for industry-funded university research.
“Leading states generally have strong research universities and at least a moderately robust advanced-industry economy with firms that benefit from more industrially relevant university research,” the ITIF found.
“In addition, many of the leading states, such as Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, and Utah have long had robust state-supported technology-commercialization programs … which try to link industry and university research.”1
Last August, for example, biopharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. announced plans to invest $100 million in manufacturing gene therapy products in Sanford based on technology developed at UNC Chapel Hill.
“Innovation drives economic opportunity and expansion,” NC Commerce Secretary Tony Copeland said at the time. “Pfizer’s decision to expand in North Carolina proves how our investments in education pay off in new jobs and new solutions to the world’s toughest challenges.”2
Similarly, the Milken Institute recently ranked Raleigh the second best-performing city in the nation in 2017. The California think tank credited NC State University with helping energize the region’s tech economy.
“The university’s Centennial Campus, which now houses more than 75 research centers and academic departments alongside a similar number of private, nonprofit, and government partners, expands the ability of academics and industry to collaborate and innovate,” the report says.
“… Through co-op and internship programs, the school creates strong ties to local industry, and tightens the relationship between curriculum and career by introducing students early to real-world applications and challenges.”
The report pointed to business-intelligence software firm SAS, as well as communications firm Bandwidth, as prominent examples of companies that have benefited from NC State research.3 VF Corporation also recently announced a strategic partnership with NC State focused on advances in textile research.4
And that’s just the public research universities – North Carolina’s standing is undoubtedly enhanced by considerable industry-backed research performed at private universities Duke and Wake Forest.
We can’t take any of these rankings for granted, though.
The ITIF noted that changes in state and federal policy in the 1980s help leverage industry support for research. As Raleigh pursues Amazon’s $5 billion HQ2, the News & Record of Greensboro notes that continued state support is needed to “strengthen community college job-training programs and to maintain an excellent state university system.”5
Great universities don’t spontaneously invent themselves. They need constant nurturing. And they do pay off – in jobs, in economic growth and in the ability to attract new industry.