|Now under way, the LSU Innovation Park aims to transform the regional economy.|
Along Nicholson Drive near GSRI Avenue in Baton Rouge, about five miles south of the main campus of Louisiana State University, is a grassy, undeveloped expanse of land. If things go as planned, it will soon become the frontispiece for the LSU Innovation Park, a 200-acre development where state-of-the-art science and technology companies could set up shop. Like other university research parks nationwide, the project's aim is to foster the regional knowledge economy by corralling science and business under one roof.
In general, university research parks attract companies working in areas that complement the research strengths of the affiliated academic institutions, and they develop slowly over time, often adding only one or two tenants each year. They have a long history in the U.S., including oft-cited examples such as the 52-year-old Research Triangle Park between Duke, North Carolina State and UNC, where more than 170 global companies operate.
Hundreds of research parks exist nationwide and around the world in various stages of development. According to the Association of University Research Parks, they collectively employ more than 300,000 in knowledge-based companies. They're seen as significant hubs of economic activity and are especially successful at creating high-wage jobs. One of the models for the LSU Innovation Park is Purdue University's Research Park Network, which has sparked $1.3 billion in annual impact for the state of Indiana and has helped create more than 4,000 jobs.
The idea to launch an LSU research park has swirled for a long time, but made big strides in 2005 when the university acquired a large tract of land from Albemarle Corp. on GSRI Avenue off Nicholson Drive. Since then, the site functioned as the LSU South Campus and housed entrepreneurial and research ventures like the Louisiana Business and Technology Center, which incubates innovative small businesses. Last year the research park project got another boost, when the Legislature approved funding to also buy the Nicholson frontage land, which lies adjacent to the South Campus.
Now, with contiguous land in place and a master plan completed showcasing what a built-out site could look like, Innovation Park officials and state and local economic developers are actively recruiting science and technology companies looking for a home in a research environment.
"[The Innovation Park] gives us a chance to be involved in economic development in this region and be the kind of innovative university we want to be," said LSU Chancellor Michael Martin. "It gives our faculty and students a chance to interact with emerging businesses, and it brings the strength of the university to emerging industries and helps advance their causes."
At its essence, a university research park is a setting that sparks collaboration between two disparate cultures: entrepreneurs who live to spot opportunities and researchers motivated to find answers to complex problems. By working side-by-side in an environment that breeds commercial success, these distinct personality types have the potential to grow marketable ideas. When enough ideas hit, a powerful economic development engine begins to form that can grow jobs and foster the local innovation economy, says Charles D'Agostino, executive director of the LSU Innovation Park and the Louisiana Business and Technology Center.
"This is about having a lot of smart people in one place who have great ideas," said D'Agostino. "They're also interested in taking advantage of the things LSU is really good at."
The Innovation Park will target only companies working in disciplines that dovetail with strong LSU research areas, many of which are also sectors with strong growth potential in the regional economy. They include micro-machining; digital media and interactive software and hardware; biotech and life sciences; disaster management; homeland security and anti-terrorism; sea, coast and environment; advanced materials; high-speed computing; agriculture and food technology; and engineering and product development.
The process by which companies and faculty interact at a research park unfolds differently each time, say observers. In some cases, a business idea may start with an entrepreneur who wants to collaborate with a university researcher working on a promising new technology. In other cases, the kernel of an idea may start in the laboratory of a faculty member whose next step is to take it to an on-site business incubator, like the LBTC. In either case the benefit of the research park comes from an "increased density of projects," says Peter Kelleher, LSU associate vice chancellor of the Office of Intellectual Property, Commercialization and Development.
"The real value of the research park is its proximity to the research campus and its potential to change the climate at the university," said Kelleher, whose office is the first stop for faculty interested in commercialization and licensing. "Just knowing that they're there under one roof makes it a potential source for collaboration."
The first major step toward creating an LSU research park occurred a few months before Hurricane Katrina when then-Louisiana Economic Development Secretary Michael Olivier and D'Agostino discussed the availability of a plot of land a short distance from LSU. Outfitted with existing offices newly vacated by Albemarle and surrounded by vast acreage, Olivier and D'Agostino believed the GSRI site was well-suited for a research park. It also had a significant, stable neighbor, the National Guard, which owned a 50-acre plot at one end of the parcel.
Olivier went to the Louisiana Legislature and found funds that enabled LSU to acquire the land for the purpose of launching a research park. No academic expansions would take place on the site, which was named the LSU South Campus. The LBTC, founded on the main campus in 1988, relocated to the site in 2005, where it continued incubating small businesses focused primarily on technology products and services, light manufacturing, environmental sciences and other professional services.
The site took on a new role after Katrina hit in August 2005. The National Guard established a staging area for first responders heading in and out of flooded New Orleans. Dozens of startup companies from New Orleans-based business incubators were temporarily housed by the LBTC.
Other entities have either moved to or opened on the site over the last six years, creating a hive of scientific research and diverse entrepreneurial activities, foreshadowing what the Innovation Park might one day become.
One is the LSU Center for BioModular Multi-Scale Systems, a collaborative project that studies how micro/nanofabrication can be applied to genomics, proteomics and pharmaceutical research. It's a joint project between researchers at LSU's Center for Advanced Microstructures and Devices (CAMD), LSU's chemistry, biology and mechanical engineering departments, the LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans, Tulane Health Science Center, and Xavier University.
Also on site is the National Center for Biomedical Research and Training, which prepares emergency responders throughout the U.S. for domestic and international terrorist attacks. Building on the state's growth in the disaster management sector is the Louisiana Business Emergency Operations Center, a project of LSU's Stephenson Disaster Management Institute that provides continuity services to statewide businesses and industries after a catastrophe.
The site also attracted a significant private investor in a field that has become one of the fastest growing areas of economic activity in the state. Electronic Arts (EA Sports) opened its first North American video game test center on the South Campus in 2008 and has grown so significantly that the company plans to move to a larger building now under construction on LSU's main campus.
The Louisiana Technology Transfer Office is also located at the site. It helps university researchers who believe they have a marketable idea formulate appropriate next steps.
The LBTC's presence on the South Campus has been important in creating a vibrant entrepreneurship culture, especially now that the LSU Innovation Park is in place. The program currently hosts more than 30 startups developing new technologies. It also includes a mobile business development classroom for burgeoning small businesses in rural areas and features an on-site incubator for LSU students who have viable business ideas.
A small business and technology incubator like the LBTC is seen as an important component in many university research parks because it rounds out a continuum of growth opportunities for businesses in various stages of development.
"It makes sense for companies that might get their start at the LBTC to move out on their own in the Innovation Park," said Adam Knapp, CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, which has supported the Innovation Park's establishment and recently facilitated a formal study of best practices for university parks.
Last year, BRAC and a team of partners, including LED, the Research Park Corp., LSU and Southern University, hired an outside consultant to study winning university research park strategies. The report also ferreted out what would work best in a research park situated specifically in Baton Rouge. BRAC and LED have already begun discussing the Innovation Park with national companies engaged in site selection. One of the factors helping to showcase the site is the completed master plan, a document that shows land use, infrastructure, landscaping and water features, and four different approved building types with varying architectural restrictions. For example, the plan's high-profile, higher-priced Class A office space must be built to resemble LSU's Italian Renaissance style and will be situated on Nicholson Drive. Inside the park, however, other architectural styles can be built.
Over time, the park could also include a hotel, restaurants and retail outlets that will help further transform the site into a business destination. These are allowable functions in the real estate covenants, said D'Agostino.
The park is closer than ever in its formation, but officials still have to find millions in infrastructure funding that likely won't be indentified until companies commit to establishing their operations inside the park. Once that happens, D'Agostino believes it will be easier to attract public economic development funds, grants and private investment.
Officials hope companies will be attracted to an incentive-rich environment in which to do business. The Innovation Park was designated a qualified research park in 2009 by LED and has been named a Historically Underutilized Business (HUB) Zone, which affords companies better access to federal procurement opportunities. Plus, the state offers the nation's most generous tax credits in digital media and software development, which are among the research park's targeted sectors.
Martin says the project will go a long way in helping LSU close the gap in technology transfer and intellectual property commercialization, areas in which it has admittedly lagged. An ideal climate for a research institution is one that fosters constant interaction between research and entrepreneurship, which then stimulates the flow of capital, he says. It can also help attract a growing number of grants dedicated to forging relationships between the academy and the private sector.
"We may be a decade behind in the way we go about doing tech transfer, but we are committed to moving it along, and the Innovation Park will be a big part of that. This is really about changing the culture at LSU. It gives us a chance to help faculty incubate with business support, and to have entrepreneurs in the private sector set up shop."
Martin adds that, while other universities have a significant head start, he regards LSU's late entrance as advantageous.
"There are models all over for us to learn and benefit from so that we can be a little more contemporary about the facility. In some respects we've been behind, but now we're well-positioned."
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