Editor’s note: In the latest of WRAL TechWire’s State of Startups series that examines the North Carolina entrepreneurial ecosystem from the coast to the mountains, writer Barry Teater reports on what’s happening at the N.C. Research Campus. The dream of billionaire David Murdock has taken root and in recent months has enjoyed a renewed surge in growth. So what’s happening? Here’s a look.

KANNAPOLIS – N.C. Research Campus comes of age, prepares for more growth

When dignitaries visit the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis, north of Charlotte, they are given commemorative red bricks inscribed with the phrase, “Honoring the past, building a better future.”

The bricks were salvaged from a massive, 6-million-square-foot Cannon Mills textile plant that closed in 2003 after its last owner, Pillowtex, went bankrupt, displacing more than 4,000 workers, the largest permanent layoffs in the state’s history.

The words on the bricks were spoken by David H. Murdock at a ceremony in 2005 when the billionaire chairman of Dole Foods announced an ambitious plan for the site, which he had bought at auction the previous year. He envisioned a state-of-the-art science and technology campus that would promote better health through research in nutrition, agriculture and exercise while also revitalizing the city’s economy.

Today, a decade after the textile mill was demolished, Murdock’s phoenix has risen from the rubble.

“Coming of age”

“I think we’re coming of age,” says Mark Spitzer, vice president of operations for Murdock’s Castle & Cooke North Carolina, the developer and business development arm of the campus. “The Research Campus is the engine for creating new opportunities for economic development. We’re kind of at the beginning of phase two of making that happen. You’ll see much more out of us in the future.”

Born as a public-private partnership, the campus has grown to include eight buildings with 1 million square feet of office and laboratory space. It is populated by a growing list of tenants including a non-profit research institute that bears Murdock’s name, 11 companies, five healthcare and education organizations, and research centers run by eight North Carolina universities.

These entities collectively employ about 1,040 people on the campus or within walking distance.

“Our research tells us that we are a unique campus in the country,” Spitzer says. “It really comes down to the collaborative nature of having eight universities and a total of nine research entities that are engaged in research around healthy living and disease prevention. If you look at the various academic disciplines that are represented, you can’t go and find that array in a single campus anywhere else.”

New growth

That value proposition has attracted four new companies to the campus within the last year. The newest addition, announced this month, is R&S Chemicals, a cancer research and development company that will lease a 950-square-foot lab.

“The NCRC gives me everything I could need,” said Srisailas Muthialu, Ph.D., PMP, vice president of R&S Chemicals. “As a small company, we don’t want to invest too much in our infrastructure. The ready-to-use lab is what we were looking for. I could not find anything else in this area like it.”

Companies that lease one of the labs benefit from a high-speed fiber network, secure facilities, free parking and access to the analytical laboratory services of the David H. Murdock Research Institute and UNC Charlotte’s Bioinformatics Services Division.

The campus has also announced the addition of two new food-related research centers.

Standard Process, a 380-employee nutritional supplements company based in Palmyra, Wis., will open a Standard Process Center of Excellence in 2018. The center will conduct research in whole-food nutrition and nutritional therapy.

The campus has partnered with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and N.C. State University to establish a Food Processing and Innovation Center that will include a 15,000-square-foot cGMP (current good manufacturing practices) test lab and pilot plant.

The plant will provide proof of principle for new technologies and test advanced packaging technologies and manufacturing equipment. It will also develop new beverage flavors, extracts and other technologies transferred from other research centers at the campus.

“It will be a unique facility in the state,” Spitzer says.

New tech center coming

The campus is also anticipating the arrival of Rowan-Cabarrus Community College’s new, 60,000-square-foot Advanced Technology Center that will train students and workers for high-tech jobs in the area.

The facility will be built next to the college’s existing 62,000-square-foot Biotechnology Training Center, which offers an Associate’s degree that prepares students for jobs as technicians, research assistants or quality control associates.

Spitzer says as the campus plans its next phase of development, it will play to its strengths when marketing its resources.

“We are becoming far more focused in who we are targeting for companies to come in and take advantage of the value proposition that we represent,” he says. “Our messaging is becoming far more clear in our interest in pathways to healthy living and disease prevention through nutrition, through exercise, through lifestyle and through agricultural crop processes. We have also, importantly, distinguished ourselves from those who are looking at pharmacological solutions to disease. We’re looking to prevent disease. That’s our focus.”

To bolster recruiting and partnership development, the campus has established or strengthened relationships with economic development organizations including the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, the Council for Entrepreneurial Development, the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the state legislature.

“We are engaging folks in a different way to press our message out here and to welcome and invite their participation in what we’re doing here,” Spitzer says.

The campus is also working with the City of Kannapolis to help revitalize the city.

“We are in a very strong partnership with the city as they create a more inviting and upscale environment for the campus to exist in,” Spitzer says.

Helping the city grow and recover from the loss of Cannon Mills, the area’s largest employer for decades, has been an ongoing cause for Murdock, who has owned a home in Landis, adjacent to Kannapolis, since the mid-1980s.

Though his roles as CEO of both Dole Foods and Castle & Cooke occupy much of his time, the 94-year-old Murdock “is engaged and involved” with the campus, Spitzer points out..

“He’s been here a couple of times recently, and he continues to receive regular updates about the campus,” Spitzer says. “He looks upon North Carolina and the North Carolina Research Campus as his legacy. It’s what he wants to be known for in the future.”

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