Not Your Grandfather's Research Park

Guest Post By Bob Geolas and Mason Ailstock, Research Triangle Park Foundation

Editor’s note: The following article is excerpted from the September/October issue of the CIMS Innovation Management Report. CIMS maintains an office in the Frontier Center, which represents the first phase of the soon-to-be transformed Research Triangle Park, as detailed below. Bob Geolas is president and CEO of the RTP Foundation; Mason Ailstock is COO.

Sprawling office campuses, lobby fountains and ample parking are less in demand than they once were. Today’s workers increasingly value both easy access to their workplaces and area amenities. Long commutes and company cafeterias are out, and walkable downtown areas and city centers are in. These shifts in workplace environments have made traditional research parks feel stagnant and out-of-date.

As a response, many so-called innovation districts are emerging to create a more collaborative and inspiring environment for employees. Across the globe, these locations are structured to encourage and support new ideas in an effort to revamp aging research parks.

New parks appear

In response to this cultural shift, innovation sites are beginning to expand their offerings beyond just the research lab. A Brookings Institution report from 2014, “The Rise of Innovation Districts,” identified cities across the United States and the United Kingdom that were making efforts to address modern and future work needs. While the locations examined varied in physical form, all had three core features in common: proximity to universities, existing industry clusters, and spaces that allow both groups to come together and network. All the innovation districts emphasized collaboration across industries through the creation of physical spaces designed for collaborative work.

The Research Triangle Park, which is located between Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill in North Carolina, was named an emerging innovation district. As the name might imply, RTP is not a fully developed innovation district but is in the process of redeveloping and reimaging the future of the Park.

The 200-plus companies that call RTP home today range from 6,000 employees to one. They vary from Biogen and the N.C. Biotechnology Center to Credit Suisse, IBM and Syngenta. Businesses in RTP are also in a variety of sectors: information technology, pharmaceuticals, agricultural biotechnology, life sciences, and finance.

Companies have been attracted to RTP since 1960 because of the talent within the region, the proximity to multiple tier-one research universities, and the North Carolina lifestyle. On average, more than 20 companies are founded in or move to RTP each year. But, with more millennials joining the workforce, these factors need to be combined with access to the housing, restaurants and public transit that RTP currently lacks.

Transforming RTP

Consequently, under the leadership and guidance of our board of directors, RTP began a journey in 2013 to transform Research Triangle Park into a place that would encourage people to dream, believe and create a place that would be attractive to both employees and employers.

In December 2013 the Research Triangle Foundation acquired 100 acres in the heart of Research Triangle Park. Called Park Center, this property created an epic opportunity. For the first time in RTP’s history, a redevelopment could occur that would include density and amenities like restaurants and shopping. It also provided RTP leaders with a chance to continue providing resources to North Carolina through expanded venture opportunities. But, at its heart, this was about doing something big for citizens of the state. After all, how could RTP remain relevant when it was an area half the size of Manhattan but lacking a single coffee shop for employees to grab a latte?

As with any development project, there were plans to be made and details to work out. We wanted Park Center to accommodate many different public gathering places in a compact area along with retail, residential and office space. More than that, it would need to be a dynamic, inspiring space that encouraged constant learning in an active environment. It must also remain authentic to RTP’s environmental roots.

 Breaking Down Barriers

In the meantime, there were a few large buildings that we viewed as assets. One was an old IBM building. After some brainstorming, we determined that it would make an ideal collaboration space. Many times, when people have ideas, they face barriers, including those imposed by the work environment. With this building the goal was to create a place that removed as many barriers as possible in order to help anyone achieve their goals.

Co-working can encourage innovation.

Co-working can encourage innovation.

And so, a plan for a new place called The Frontier was imagined and then implemented. The Frontier is meant to be a mini-version of Park Center. We wanted to see what would happen when we threw open the doors and let users create a place they needed. We invited RTP companies, our area universities—including N.C. State’s CIMS– and community organizations to become a part of this great experiment.

We outfitted the first floor of The Frontier with modular furniture that can be moved and arranged as needed. There are also individual conference rooms open to anyone in the community to use, which can be booked online. And, most importantly, we provided free coffee to help keep everyone caffeinated.

At first, many people who came to the space asked, “What’s the catch?” Most remained cautious when we told them there wasn’t one. After being open for a few months, The Frontier staff incorporated weekly “happy hours” to encourage mingling among Pioneers, the term used to describe early adopters at The Frontier who were using the space. This also served as a way to help people begin thinking of RTP as a convening space.

Developing the Frontier

Since then, The Frontier has become a success story that we hope is far from over. It is now home to offices of university programs from NC State University and UNC-Chapel Hill, which helps us achieve our historic mission of connecting with our area universities. C Spring, Database Logic, Storyboard Media, and 28 other companies occupy affordable offices on the upper floors. These companies range from nonprofits focused on many causes (inclusivity, the arts, providing job skills for those with disabilities) to organizations with university ties, startups focused on the tech world and established organizations like the Army Research Office.

Since its opening just over a year ago, The Frontier has welcomed more than 40,000 people attending an event or program at the space. Each week there are events like the RTP Food Truck Rodeo, free fitness classes sponsored by RTPfit, Kauffman’s 1 Million Cups pitch breakfast, and helpful information sessions from the N.C. Secretary of State.

With little to no barriers, The Frontier has become RTP’s front door. Because Park Center is still a few years from completion, we invite you to visit The Frontier for yourself, or to check out our website. As a place that encourages the exchange of ideas, we welcome you to share yours. Hope to see you soon.

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