What's an innovation hub? What will make UNC's different? Its leader explains – WRAL TechWire

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Sheryl Waddell talks startups at UNC-CH.
by Rick Smith — October 20, 2022
Editor’s note: Each week WRAL TechWire focuses its Innovation Thursday report on companies, people and technology that could make a big difference in our collective future.
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CHAPEL HILL – Innovation hubs are taking off across the country. They’re places for innovators and entrepreneurs to explore ideas, launch startups, build industry partnerships, turn research into products and grow their businesses. But when UNC-Chapel Hill’s new innovation hub opens in 2023, it will be distinct: the only hub located in a downtown innovation district that is immediately adjacent to a top-five public university.
Innovate Carolina, the university’s central team for innovation, entrepreneurship and economic development, is currently accepting inquiries from people and organizations interested in securing space or participating in the hub through flexible co-working spaces, private offices, meeting spaces, the Launch Chapel Hill accelerator, and other events, programs and services.
In a three-part Q&A series, Innovate Carolina’s Director of Economic Development and Innovation Hubs Sheryl Waddell, shares the latest updates on the hub. In this first Q&A, learn more about the national innovation hub movement, what you’ll find in Chapel Hill’s hub that you won’t find elsewhere, and why Chapel Hill’s innovation district is a big deal to entrepreneurs, researchers, and companies large and small.
Across the country, innovation hubs are generally places where innovators, entrepreneurs, community members and people from universities can collaborate, develop their ideas and bring them to impact. At Carolina, our hub will be all of those things, plus a space where we’ll offer educational and innovation opportunities and programming, as well as coworking, which offers the flexibility needed by organizations to secure space. Our hub will support people at the university, local citizens, and entrepreneurs and industries throughout the region. We want the hub to be a bridge between the university and the community that invites companies and industries to Chapel Hill and into the hub. We see a lot of partnerships developing between major industry leaders, startups and researchers from many departments across the university. Whether from an educational aspect of workforce development or from the research perspective, our corporate partners will be able to build strong relationships with the university around innovation opportunities. The hub will also be a way to equip all types of organizations and people from the Chapel Hill community with the entrepreneurial tools, skills and methods they need to get started with their ventures and make their ideas work.
We’ve done a significant amount of benchmarking on how universities and university towns are developing innovation hubs and districts. Clearly, other universities have worked closely with their communities, towns or cities to build hubs that are made stronger by the town-gown relationships. Innovation districts create spaced where an industry can be physically close to a university. This creates opportunities to tap into the research and talent that’s created on campus. At the same time, the university sees the value that industry partners bring a lot of opportunities to students. Many universities see the creation of innovation districts as a win-win and are creating sponsorship opportunities and going after funding opportunities with donors and corporations to create these intersections between the university, the community and industry.
In Chapel Hill, we also look at the innovation hub and the innovation district as huge opportunities to strengthen the economy. We are investigating ways for how we can develop these innovation intersections and innovation spaces that allow for stronger engagement with both the community and the industry.
“Carolina is the only top-five public university that will have an innovation hub and district directly adjacent to the university. The hub and district are right across the street, so that’s something that we’re really excited about. This allows for creative collisions, whether it’s people walking across campus, meeting up on Franklin Street or working side-by-side in the hub itself.” Sheryl Waddell, Director of Economic Development and Innovation Hubs, Innovate Carolina
An innovation hub is definitely something new and different for Chapel Hill. In our case, the biggest misconception is that some people assume that the hub in Chapel Hill won’t be available to the public. That’s not the case at all, and is something that we want to clarify. Whether you are a local startup founder, small business, corporation, remote worker, student, faculty member or a general member of the community who has a curiosity for solving important problems, the door to our innovation hub will be open to you. That open door can lead to collaborations with other community members in the hub, partnerships with industry, or new ways of working with the university. The hub is open to all who have a curiosity for making an impact.
The innovation hub will be part of the innovation district – we’re calling it the anchor of the district – and the district will be much larger than the hub itself. The actual hub will be the university’s central point for innovation and a bridge that connects campus and community.  It will be located in the downtown district at 136 East Rosemary/137 East Franklin Street. The best way to think of the hub is the key entry point to the district, a place where people can start their business and take advantage of co-working space or innovation programming. From there, they can branch out and grow to take advantage of other spaces and opportunities in the wider district.
The innovation district will offer a much larger set of office spaces and biotech facilities and labs that span portions of East and West Franklin Street. For example, the district will include a 180,000 square-foot life sciences center at 150 East Franklin Street. This life sciences center will offer a continuation of space for companies that start small in the hub or on campus, but then grow into additional space offered as part of the district. This space will offer flexibility for startups, no matter what stage they’re at. Innovators who start in the hub or in other areas in town or across the region will now have the ability to graduate to larger spaces for their companies or organizations within the wider downtown. That’s something that hasn’t always been available in Chapel Hill in the past. Whether you’re a one-man shop or multi-employee company, you’ll have the ability to start in Chapel Hill and grow here.
Plus, the innovation district isn’t just office space or innovation programming. It’s an overall experience. You’ll have a place to park, a place to work, and place take advantage of innovation programs and services. You’ll also be able to walk to retail shops and restaurants. You’ll find urban parks and greenspaces. There will be new professional apartments available downtown, plus a new hotel. There will be plenty of lifestyle experiences for people who want to come to Chapel Hill and stay in Chapel Hill.
Carolina is the only top-five public university that will have an innovation hub and district directly adjacent to the university. The hub and district are right across the street, so that’s something that we’re really excited about. This allows for creative collisions, whether it’s people walking across campus, meeting up on Franklin Street or working side-by-side in the hub itself. When someone parks, they can go into the innovation district, or they can walk across campus to meet with faculty members. Students who don’t have cars have the ability to walk from campus for internships with companies that are coming into Chapel Hill. Scientific startup founders can work on their company in the hub and walk across the street to campus labs. The immediate link between campus and community something that people are going to love.
Another thing that sets our hub apart is that we’re not a single-flavor hub. Not only do we provide innovation programming, but we also offer services and co-working spaces. Many hubs only offer one or the other, but not both. And that’s an important distinction for us. Because our Chapel Hill hub will have programming, venture services and workspaces right next to one another allows people to experience productive – and sometimes serendipitous – intersections. We imagine having individual entrepreneurs, startup founders, corporate innovation teams, scientists, students working and networking in the same environment. So, you’ll find yourself sitting next to someone who’s likely to be an expert in something that you aren’t. Finding expertise that complements your own will be easy.
When it comes to problem solving, we have a wide lens. A lot of innovation hubs – particularly those connected to universities – may be narrower in their focus in terms of industry. Some hubs focus almost exclusively on life sciences. Others almost entirely on tech. And others are born out of engineering or business schools. The Carolina innovation hub is open to all of those areas of work – including social innovation and nonprofits. Of course, because research at the university is heavily focused on life sciences, we will provide tremendous support for bioscience and biotech companies. They’re going to play a huge part in this. Digital health companies are another emerging focus of the university. So we see many opportunities to work with the Eshelman Institute for Innovation, the new School of Data Science and Society and UNC Health on digital health ventures. And for entrepreneurs who are working on social issues – things like the environment, clean water, hunger, you name it – we’re open to you, too. We’re here to support problem solvers of all types. There are huge benefits to people from different industries and perspectives working together.
Yes, the building at 150 East Franklin Street is directly next to the innovation hub and will be a major life sciences center. It will offer a combination of life science office, lab and class space. A minimum of two floors are slated to be bioscience wet labs, which is highly sought in the Chapel Hill area. Having wet lab space available to the public on the edge of campus is a turning point for Chapel Hill and the university. In the past, researchers who launched life science startups in Chapel Hill simply didn’t have anywhere in town to set up shop. So they’ve had to go to Durham, RTP or Raleigh. Now, they’ll have a convenient, first-class facility right next to campus – and right in the heart of downtown. And even before the life science center opens at 150 East Franklin, BioLabs North Carolina, which is a top co-working space for life science startups, will be on the third floor of the 136 East Rosemary/137 East Franklin Building. That’s right upstairs from the hub. BioLabs is going to be a major presence in the district and will provide small-bench space for early life science ventures and smaller life science companies.
The amazing thing about the life science center at 150 East Franklin, though, is that it will let companies expand into larger offices and labs as they become more established. They can now grow their 15-person biotech company right there on Franklin Street, just steps from a top research campus. That’s just awesome, and it’s not something you’ll find many other places.
Absolutely. The hub is designed to be an environment that startups can use in a flexible way as they grow. By offering a variety of desks and office spaces inside the hub – plus wet lab space available via BioLabs upstairs – the hub gives startup founders one fewer thing to worry about.  They can focus on the development of their technology, product or company. They don’t have to focus on getting a long-term lease. They don’t have to worry about equipping their office with wet lab equipment, which is extremely expensive. So in addition to cost savings, there is also just the ability for them to focus on what they need to do to build their business and reach their next step.
From the university perspective, our goal is to attract and retain the best students and faculty – and help them turn their research and knowledge into products, services and companies that serve the public good. Research and ideas don’t do anyone any good if they stay locked up in classrooms and labs. An innovation district and hub will help students and faculty build deeper connections to corporations, community partners and one another. The hub is an avenue for turning research and knowledge into tangible impact. For top faculty and students considering their options, the innovation hub will let them know that Carolina is a place they can make a real difference.
From an economic development perspective, the Town of Chapel Hill has traditionally had an eight-month economy. When students leave for the summer, companies can really struggle. This became extremely obvious during the pandemic. We’ve bounced back, but I think we can bounce back even further and really create more foot traffic by bringing industry to Chapel Hill 12 months of the year. If we can help support the companies coming here, we can actually create a more vibrant economic engine within Chapel Hill that will benefit everyone. The town has been doing a lot to attract and work with entrepreneurs, and we’re just helping to double down on that.
The Chapel Hill innovation hub is slated to open spring 2023. For more information about the hub and innovation district, visit innovationhub.unc.edu. Next in the series: learn how the hub will help generate economic development opportunities in Chapel Hill.
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