Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Yet Another Region Reaping Benefits from University-Linked R&D Parks

Yet another example of the benefits of corporate R&D parks linked to universities is found in the Blue Ridge region of Virginia, around Roanoke. The Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center is a 120-acre business park adjacent to the Virginia Tech Campus that was developed in the late 1980s. It currently houses 138 companies which employ 1,800 people.

A March 27 article in the Blue Ridge Business Journal describes how technology developed at the university combined with the R&D focus of the park has paid off by creating companies and jobs for the region. It quotes the President of the Corporate Research Center as saying that the number of tenants/businesses in the park has grown by 10% per year over the last four years, and that 95% of the businesses are primarily involved in R&D.

Leaders there are also planning to created a Center for Advanced Engineering and Research to facilitate R&D linkages between local companies and universities. "The model is to build a center where creative work occurs. If you look at government, university, and industry coming together, it is a hatchery for knowledge capital and innovation, which will create multiple spinoffs," said the CEO of a technology firm there.

What's the basic economic development formula in the Blue Ridge Region? The COO of a biomedical institute there says:

"There is physical space available, for little money; there is a world-class university in this area; housing is affordable here; and there are a lot of people clamoring to come here. I get [unsolicited] emails weekly from people around the U.S. who grew up in this area or went to Virginia Tech and want to come back."

Sounds a lot like the Pittsburgh Region -- not one, but two world-class universities; affordable housing; and natives and university graduates working elsewhere who want to come back.

What's missing here? A world-class R&D park near the universities in Oakland.

Expansion of the Pittsburgh Technology Center and redevelopment of the LTV Coke Works site in Hazelwood, with improved transportation connections from the universities and medical center to the riverfront, could create a magnet for R&D jobs and startups that would rival the best of what other regions have to offer. Significant state and local investments will be needed to make this happen, but they could well be some of the best economic development investments the state and region could make.


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