Promoting Innovation In The Research Triangle

Saturday, April 1, 2006 - 01:00

The Editor interviews Rick L. Weddle, President and CEO, Research Triangle Foundation.

Editor: Why did you become involved with the Research Triangle Foundation?

Weddle: I have been in regional economic development for almost thirty years. Most recently, I spent seven years as president and CEO of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council. Through those efforts I assisted in the growth of 26,000 new jobs and relocation of 170 new firms to the Phoenix area. When I joined the Research Triangle Foundation in 2004, it had been running for 45 years, making it the largest and longest running research and scientific park in the United States. Working for the Research Triangle Foundation is a very unique opportunity, through which I hope to bring the same level of success to the region.

Editor: Would you provide an overview of the Research Triangle Foundation's mission and history?

Weddle: The Research Triangle Foundation of North Carolina is the owner and developer of the Research Triangle Park. In the late 1950s the public and private sectors in North Carolina realized that there was a need to diversify the local economy, strengthen the economic base, and provide high-quality jobs for our residents and the graduates of North Carolina's universities. The process began with efforts designed to attract high quality industries to the region. In order to do that, they needed a physical location that could accommodate the growth of those companies. That led to the creation of the Research Triangle Foundation, a nonprofit organization designed to increase collaboration among those groups vital to the success of the project. Equally important, the Research Triangle Institute was formed in order to provide research support to the industry groups as they began to move into the region.

Editor: Why is collaboration essential to the successful growth of the region?

Weddle: The Foundation is responsible for building and maintaining the physical aspects of the Park, attracting and retaining Park companies, and enhancing the competitive position of the Park and the Triangle region. In order to achieve these goals, the Foundation provides a collaborative environment with the private sector, public sector and academic institutions. The collaboration between those three segments of society is unique and the crux of the innovative environment here that differentiates it from most if not all urban areas in America today.

Over time we realized that it is a fundamental core competency for the continual success of our development. Looking back at our achievements, the results are dramatic and pronounced. In 1955 less than 12 percent of the employment in the metropolitan area was in high technology or new line industries. Today approximately half would fit into that industry. At that time the Research Triangle region was one of the poorest economic regions in the country and today it is one of the wealthiest. We also developed from one of the least educated populations in the country to one of the most educated.

Editor: How did the economic development of the region assist in its rise in education levels?

Weddle: By attracting high quality employers, the region was set up as a place where local talent could flourish and at the same time where highly skilled individuals from around the world would be interested in relocating. Educational development is a slow and drawn-out process, but over time we have seen the profile of education in the region change. The demographic variables that have affected that are the increased education level of the indigenous population and high degree of educational experience of those coming to the region. As the region expanded and jobs were created, we saw a higher incidence of bright and gifted students coming to North Carolina to attend UNC, North Carolina State University or Duke University and remaining in the area post-graduation.

Editor: What incentives are available to companies to consider setting up in the region?

Weddle: There are two types of incentives. First, there are those that exist because they function as amenities or benefits that were created over time as part of the environment. This includes a highly skilled labor pool and a state business climate that is competitive and broad based. Secondly, there are benefits specifically designed for the companies in Research Triangle Park. For example, those setting up in the Park receive a permanent ongoing property tax discount because of the structure of the Park. It remains permanently outside of any municipality so municipal taxes are never assessed. That amounts to a 40 percent savings in property taxes when compared to surrounding areas. There are also blended incentives that exist on behalf of the state of North Carolina and the counties that are involved.

Editor: Does the Foundation assist companies who wish to procure government and private grants?

Weddle: Working with local and state governments allows us to provide a seamless and transparent economic development delivery system. We work with the regional partnerships, county economic development agencies, and the North Carolina Department of Commerce because we consider economic development a team endeavor. We try to avoid being duplicative in our efforts. In that regard, we serve as a catalyst so that the companies can work with the respective agencies but the primary interface is done directly with the agencies.

Editor: What about the benefits of living in the region?

Weddle: It is one of the most robust employment environments in the country. We have the natural advantages of having a desirable climate year round. The quality of life is substantial and enhanced by the presence of the three major universities and a half dozen smaller universities that provide the cultural and social amenities that one would expect from a university environment. The region also hosts an excellent educational system for students from the pre-kindergarten level all the way through graduate school. Finally, our central location between the Atlantic Ocean and Blue Ridge Mountains makes it a great place to live.

Editor: What industries are represented in Research Triangle Park?

Weddle: The largest employers in the region currently include IBM, GlaxoSmithKline, Cisco Systems, Nortel Networks, RTI International, US EPA, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Diosynth Biotechnology, Sony Ericsson, Bayer CropScience and Biogen IDEC. These companies represent a broad base of industries that is unique. Overall there is a strong presence in IT, telecommunications, informatics, pharmaceutical, bio-pharmaceutical, medical devices, agricultural and biotechnology industries. We also have a strong presence in environmental science companies, material science, chemicals and electronics companies. There has also been an emerging presence in financial services and the consulting services, research and support, and technology business services that are essential for businesses to flourish. We provide a broad based, cutting edge, forward leaning economic base.

Editor: Tech companies often have to deal with unique legal matters such as intellectual property, employment, real estate, and commercial issues. Is the region's legal community developed well enough to address these concerns?

Weddle: Any community that grows up as a new sector over time cannot develop without the same evolution of the business services that can support their endeavors. We are characterized by a large number of significant law firms that have strength in business and industry support. They have the resources to support local businesses, not just in technology matters but also in finance, manufacturing and other related areas.

Editor: What are your goals for the future of the region and Research Triangle Foundation?

Weddle: We have established and are pursuing a 15-year plan to 2020 that will help the region become the world's leading center of innovation technology, commercialization and high quality job creation. We enjoy that position in the country today, routinely ranking in the top three to five regions of the country for technology growth and development. We are building on that foundation hoping to achieve a higher standard. In order to do that there are several clear objectives we need to address. One is to build on our existing technology infrastructure and evolve a dominant leadership position in a new and emerging technology platform over the next 20 years. Also, we need to continually improve our methods and practices so that we can be more competitive in the area of financial incentives and infrastructure. Finally, we need to engage our universities and link our knowledge assets together in a way that creates a value proposition that will support that overarching goal and set of objectives.

Editor: Where can readers learn more about the Research Triangle?

Weddle: They can visit our website, www.rtp.org or they can contact Jennifer Ferris at (919) 549-8181. We would be glad to send them some information reports.

Editor: Is there anything that you would like to add?

Weddle: It is important to note that the Research Triangle has been historically considered an innovative and leading region by framing and forming the oldest, largest and most successful research and scientific park in the country. That has given us a global brand identity and awareness in development circles. We plan to build on that to be equally cutting edge going forward as we evolve the park and its environment to the next level of success. It is important to write about what we have done, but the most important thing is to understand where we are headed and what we are trying to do.