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The "Red Means Go" Spirit

Speeding up economic recovery through collaboration
University Business, Jun 2009

NEARLY 100 YEARS AGO, when North Carolina was still a largely agricultural state, North Carolina State University President Daniel Hill described its mission as developing students who can “skillfully and unhesitatingly lead the industrial progress of our people.” His comment speaks to NC State’s historical commitment to driving the state’s economic growth.

Today, with a bow to our school colors, we express that spirit in slightly different terms: “Red means go!”

To be good citizens, we understand we have to lead, especially in bad economic times.

To have real impact, changing the world can’t be done at half speed, or alone. Particularly now during the difficult economic times we all face, our state, our nation, and our world desperately need more bright minds with more bright solutions.

Universities play a crucial role in graduating those bright students, ready to hit the ground running. But partnering and collaborating with industry, communities, government agencies, and other universities also is essential to accelerate badly needed economic recovery. Solutions to real-world problems arise from interdependent and interdisciplinary collaborations. Industry partnerships put our faculty and students in the position to learn about and help resolve those problems. Corporations, in turn, are often drawn to states and regions that promote industrial-academic collaboration.

When I arrived at NC State in 1986 as an associate dean, the state economy was dominated by manufacturing and traditional agriculture. For most of the last 20 years, we have been in transition, and transitions are rarely smooth or painless. We have lost 100,000 manufacturing jobs in the state’s traditional industries of tobacco, textiles, and furniture.

At NC State, we take seriously a responsibility to be “the People’s University.” To be good citizens, we understand we have to lead, especially in bad economic times. Equally important is our capacity to join with the state in anticipating shifts in the job market and in society.

For example, as textiles programs around the country were closing down in response to a fading traditional textiles industry, we kept ours open. The leadership of the university and its College of Textiles not only shifted directions academically but led a revitalization of the industry, focusing on advanced textiles. We’re now developing fabrics that can kill disease-carrying bacteria, lightweight turnout gear for firefighters, and clothing fabrics that are cooler, lighter, and less costly to produce. About 80 companies, including Kimberly-Clark and Procter & Gamble, are members of NC State’s Nonwovens Cooperative Research Center, the largest industry-university-state center of its kind in the nation.

At the same time, we need to help regions bypassed by the new economy. NC State joined with the state’s Department of Commerce to attract aircraft-component manufacturer Spirit AeroSystems to Kinston, N.C. That move is bringing more than 1,000 badly needed jobs to a rural part of our state traditionally dependent on agriculture and manufacturing.

NC State’s Centennial Campus is the focal point for our model of promoting economic growth through collaboration and innovation. In the tradition of nearby, internationally known Research Triangle Park, Centennial Campus is home to approximately 70 corporate and government research partners, including 26 incubator companies and 2,100 private and government employees who work shoulder-to-shoulder with about 4,700 faculty, staff, post-docs, and students. Businesses and agencies looking to locate on Centennial Campus must bring with them a plan and a predisposition for collaboration.

For example, MeadWestvaco recently selected Centennial Campus to establish its new Center for Packaging Innovation, partnering with NC State on research projects that support the company in a variety of ways, from innovative ideas for packaging to marketing.

The impact of Centennial Campus, which was named the world’s top research park in 2007 and celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, really hit home for me during a recent trip to China. When I mentioned Red Hat, the open-source software leader headquartered on Centennial Campus, my hosts’ eyes immediately lit up. The international stature of Red Hat and other companies with NC State roots - including LED lighting pioneer Cree and software developer SAS - helps confer the credibility often needed to forge overseas partnerships. NC State now has more than 200 academic partners on six continents, including a newly announced joint research lab in South Korea focusing on information technology and biotechnology.

Collaboration is key in solving global problems. In 2008, NC State launched a collaborative Engineering Research Center, funded by the National Science Foundation. It will help create a national research center aiming to revolutionize the nation’s power grid and speed renewable electric-energy technologies into every home and business in America.

We’ve contributed to value-added agriculture with products such as the sweet potato, licensing our faculty’s research to local farmers that allowed them to open a plant that is 100 percent farmer-owned and produces a sweet potato product that is shelf stable without refrigeration. Our scientists, in collaboration with researchers from around the world, have successfully mapped the genome of a plant parasite responsible for the largest part of an estimated $157 billion in agricultural damage globally every year. Mapping the root-knot nematode genome is an important first step in eliminating the parasite.

This cross-fertilization of corporate and government research partnerships also pays dividends in increased financial support for university research. More than 70 percent of NC State’s faculty is engaged in sponsored research. To leave no doubt about the importance of embracing these engagement and economic development activities, we have included them in recently revised guidelines for faculty evaluation, tenure, and promotion.

One of the best recent examples of how NC State fosters economic development through collaboration and innovation is the Golden LEAF Biomanufacturing Training and Education Center (BTEC), which opened on Centennial Campus in 2007.

To help replace the lost jobs in the state’s traditional industries, a corporate recruiting partnership begun by the state 25 years ago has made North Carolina the nation’s third-largest region in biotechnology employment, behind only California and Massachusetts. A recent study commissioned by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center found that state biotech employment grew by 18.5 percent between 2001 and 2006—three times the national rate and five times the rate for North Carolina’s private sector. The average 2006 salary for North Carolina’s more than 53,000 biotech employees was $69,000, nearly double the state average.

The flip side of the biotech sector's rapid growth is a shortage of well-educated, trained employees.

The flip side of the biotech sector’s rapid growth is a shortage of well-educated and trained employees. In North Carolina alone, the industry needs an estimated 2,500 workers a year, yet fewer than 300 currently are being trained annually. For many of the state’s 500 biotech companies, finding competent workers for vaccine or other biomanufacturing plants involved recruiting them away from a company down the street (or in another state) or setting up an expensive in-house training program. NC State recognized the need, and built a collaborative partnership in response.

The result is BTEC, the largest center of its kind in the nation. It was built with help from one of the state’s declining industries (tobacco) in the form of a $39 million grant from the nonprofit Golden LEAF Foundation, which administers a portion of the state’s tobacco-settlement money. Industry partners and the state chipped in $10 million for equipment.

Leveraging NC State’s programs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, BTEC provides hands-on training for students—including undergraduates, displaced workers from the state’s traditional industries undergoing retraining, and biotech employees seeking to upgrade their skills. We work closely with community colleges, which train the biotech industry’s manufacturing operators and technicians, and with North Carolina Central University, which educates students in pharmaceutical science.

Most striking is how closely BTEC anticipates and meets the needs of the state. The 82,500-square-foot facility and its curriculum were designed based on results from a survey of industry professionals representing dozens of companies, including 14 that have representatives on the BTEC Advisory Board. NC State students are able to train on the same large-scale, clean-room equipment used in nearby biopharmaceutical plants. More than 40 percent of BTEC’s 38-member staff comes from the biotech industry.

Since opening in fall 2007, enrollment in BTEC courses has grown from 50 to more than 220. In spring 2008, 94 of 96 students who took BTEC courses or worked with BTEC advisors found jobs in the industry—most of them in North Carolina companies. Novartis hired 12 NC State students to help with the startup of a nearby vaccine plant. Three students who helped Biogen Idec design an innovative bioreactor as part of their senior project were all offered jobs.

In these difficult economic times, one measure of university success is the ability to educate students so they prosper in their careers and build fulfilling lives for themselves and their families. Using university resources to help shape and reshape the job market through collaborations with a wide range of partners creates a broad impact well beyond campus borders.

James Oblinger is chancellor of North Carolina State University.

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