Economic Transformation News

UNCW's MARBIONC aims to be the RTP of the marine biotech industry

From the Star News Online:

UNCW hopes MARBIONC will be the Research Triangle Park of the coast

By Jason Gonzales

Just off Masonboro Loop Road, tucked between a wooded sanctuary and the Intracoastal Waterway, sits a parcel of land expected to be developed into the gem of the research world in Wilmington.

In a way, it will be the city's Centennial Campus or Research Triangle Park, with a focus on accelerating innovations discovered from marine research done at the University of North Carolina Wilmington's Center for Marine Science.

The building will house the MARBIONC program, or the Marine Biotechnology Center of North Carolina – a fledgling marine science program with a focus on creating a marine biotechnology business economy.

The building provides a foundation to take the program from which it receives its name to new heights, UNCW officials said.

MARBIONC is a $30 million business venture from federal and state money, a first-of-its-kind step to build an almost nonexistent industry. It is a risk, UNCW officials acknowledge, but the building is also an investment in the future of the school's students and in North Carolina.

Once built, the facility will serve as an economic development center housing professors, international educational institutions, a few big companies and plenty of space to help start-ups grow, said Steve Fontana, the program's senior technology development officer. He said the setup is similar to a mall with a large company anchoring the building and medium-sized and smaller companies taking up the majority of the space.

“We are helping to create an environment for 10, 15 or 20 start-up companies where hopefully they move out from our facility and boost the economy of Southeastern North Carolina,” he said. “That's when you have true economic development.”

Like most incubators, qualified researchers and scientific tools will be at the fingertips of companies looking to commercialize the school's research.

But no time limit will exist on how long companies can lease the university's space, Fontana said.

“We use the term accelerator,” he said. “If we can get a 10-year lease out of a company like GlaxoSmithKline, who says this is where we want to be and we are committed – and it fits the relationship we desire with our corporate partners – then we are exactly where we want to be.”

Building from scratch

So far, no leases have been signed at the building expected to break ground in less than a week, but there is interest, said Dan Baden, director of the Center for Marine Science at UNCW.

He said once the building is complete at the end of 2012, he believes the resources the center is amassing will ensure companies flock to the university's venture.

From the scientific tools to the qualified personnel, he said, it has taken 11 years of handpicking the best in the marine science world to make the program and building work.

“By the time we are done, this will not just be a building associated with the university, but will include a hand-selected group of people and tools that will interface to create (a hub) that will allow economic development in the region,” he said.

But that also means creating something out of nothing.

There isn't a large industry in marine biotechnology, and there are few viable commercial products to draw inspiration from.

Finding the next big thing, Baden said, takes a lot of preparation.

“It's a bit of luck, and a lot of hard work,” he said.

But Fontana said he believes the school is building the future of a marine biotechnology industry.

“I believe we will create a market for a product that people don't know they need yet,” he said. “We have an untapped resource in the ocean and over the years, marine biotech will be responsible for the future's innovations.”

A public/private venture

The business side of the building is made possible by UNCW's Campus for Research, Entrepreneurship, Service and Teaching project.

Under the CREST project, the university is able to designate parts of campus that can interact with business partners.

The opportunity to have a venture like this was made legal under the Millennial Campus Financing Act in 1999 by the General Assembly. Shortly after the act passed, Baden and Fontana said that's when the university's wheels started turning on how the campus could take advantage.

Charlie Maimone, vice chancellor for business affairs, said what CREST allows is a public-private venture meant to make the university money and further academics on campus. It also brings in partners to strengthen the local economy, he said.

“It enhances the region and builds opportunities,” he said.

With the money, the university is able to give back to students by creating real world training on the campus and further its academic mission,

Maimone said.

He noted without the opportunity, the university would lose money when trying to protect assets, including when it patents research ideas. Seeking patents can be very costly, he said.

“This creates more than we can do by ourselves.”

Drawing inspiration from others

While what MARBIONC is trying to achieve is new, the model is not, Baden said.

The university is drawing heavily from the experience of others who have succeeded in creating viable companies and university opportunities.

That includes both out-of-state and in-state campuses.

The University of Maryland's Technology Enterprise Center is one such success in biotechnology that UNCW is gleaning from, especially in how research gets back to students.

Dean Chang, director of Mtech's ventures, said the center has contributed $19 billion to the state's economy since its creation in 1983. Some of that money has gone back to the university.

With the money, he said, the university has created diverse learning opportunities for students to become the next entrepreneurs.

That includes entrepreneurship classes connecting science and business. He said about 300 classes have been made possible by the school's incubation efforts.

“We have a robust set of learning opportunities that complement our research,” he said.

In-state, N.C. State University's Centennial Campus is the reason a facility such as MARBIONC can exist and the school is leaning heavily on N.C. State's experiences.

Michael Harwood, associate vice chancellor for the Centennial Campus development office, said when it comes to ventures such as MARBIONC, the directors will learn there exists a considerable amount of skepticism.

He also said the school will continually need to adapt how it can do better and reinvent its processes to stay on the cutting edge.

“You need to always be re-evaluating the skill sets you have that are adequate for what companies need or what the campus needs to stay ahead of the curve,” he said. “The last thing you want to do is get complacent. While you are enjoying all the attention the world can change and your model no longer will be relevant.”

Chang said success at MARBIONC will help create something that not only boosts the economy, but also moves UNCW to the top tiers of universities in the nation.

“I firmly believe to have a top-notch university you have to have an incubator to help commercialize your research,” he said. “It's critical to building a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation.”

“It creates students who are the next generation of entrepreneurs that create companies that are tomorrow's Googles and Ciscos. These types of buildings and programs are not just important for the university but the country to create the next leaders.”