RALEIGH – Two events on Friday celebrated the extraordinary development of Research Triangle Park and North Carolina that, combined, have earned the Triangle a pair distinctions: A top 20 finalist for the Amazon HQ2 project as well as a serious bidder for Apple’s promised tech expansion.

At one, thought leaders discussed how to build a gigabit Internet future with four-term Gov. Jim Hunt. At the other, a past, present and future celebration of what the Park has become saluted in part to the late Gov. Luther Hodges, the man who helped create it.

Both drew big, enthusiastic crowds of 200 people or more, the broadband event at the NC Rural Center and the Rotary celebration at the NC Biotech Center. It was a day to reflect – and think big about the future.

And to make one appreciate where North Carolina has come from.

Millennials born between 1981 and 1996 who have grown up to take for granted broadband Internet, tablets and smartphones, the even younger Gen X-ers or people who have not lived in North Carolina for less than 30 years truly can’t appreciate the world from which the North Carolina of today has evolved. These programs today will help put all into perspective.

From tobacco to gigabit

Long before the communications wizardry known as the Internet emerged in the 1990’s, NC leaders were plowing the ground and planting the seeds for what we enjoy today, transitioning from tobacco road to information expressway.

RTP is an Amazon HQ2 finalist for 50,000 jobs that basically would double the number of people who work in the Park today. Yet 50 years ago the Park was barely alive, created by civic leaders such as Gov. Hodges with the hope that RTP could lift the state to a better economic and social future. And the Park as well as the region, with a revived Raleigh and Durham helping lead the way, flourishes in large part because the founders of RTP embraced technology as the way forward. Then came pioneers such as Hunt to build on that foundation.

Boomers themselves should pause for a moment from busy days and retirement lounging to reflect on the fact that the committee to form RTP was only formed in 1956, that Research Triangle Institute took root in 1958; that the Research Triangle Foundation which run the Park was formed in 1959, and that five decades ago IBM committed to become what became the cornerstone along with RTI of what all was to come.

Hunt, who through all his terms (1977-85, 1993-2001) championed the development and growth of RTP, and Luther Hodges, Jr., the son of the late governor, will be part of the separate events.

North Carolina’s Research and Education Network

One, where Hunt will deliver the keynote, takes place in Raleigh and focuses on the highway that now links the state’s 100 counties at speeds once never thought possible.

Fiber-optic Internet, as exemplified by the North Carolina Research and Education Network built by MCNC, an organization first funded in 1980 by then-Gov. Hunt and the N.C. General Assembly.

The other, put together by the RTP Rotary Club which former Gov. Hodges helped create, celebrates its 50th anniversary by honoring scientific and biotech legends as well as demonstrating the latest in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) education – the highway over which the future is being created.

Making gigabit Internet a reality

Gov. Jim Hunt

Hunt, who turns 81 next month and who continues to advocate for the continuing development of the state through education and technology, will be speaking at the North Carolina Hearts Gigabit: An Interactive Ideas Exchange.

But he won’t be alone. The day-long program taking place at the N.C. Rural Development Center in Raleigh has drawn a host of speakers and panelists who have helped turned Hodges’ vision for RTP in reality. Hunt will be introduced by Jane Smith Patterson, who at Hunt’s direction, helped create the North Carolina Information Highway. An idea really ahead of its time, the network provided high-speed communications that linked schools across the state to drive distance education.

Representatives from MCNC and the Golden LEAF Foundation will be there. MCNC, created in 1980 as the Microelectronics Center of North Carolina, moved from a focus on the chips industry to build what ultimately became the North Carolina Research and Education Network, or NCREN. The state’s fiber-optic Internet network now covers 2,800 miles across 82 counties, built in part with funding support from Golden LEAF.

People who made gigabit Internet a reality, not a dream, should take a bow.

A Park Celebration

At the same time ideas about how to further capitalize on the state’s information technology infrastructure are discussed in Raleigh, the Rotary event will mix past, present and future with its own program.

Gov. Luther Hodges

Hodges’ son, Luther Hodges Jr., takes pride in seeing the Rotary chapter celebrate what his father helped create – the Park and the chapter.

“I can certainly affirm that your emphasis on academic achievement in the sciences is exactly what my father wanted to see at the Research Triangle Park and environs,” he told WRAL TechWire’s James Amato. “North Carolina’s great academic institutions were the driving force behind the Research Triangle, and my father frequently said that our state was exporting our best assets; namely, the graduates of  UNC, NCSU, and Duke.  We then needed to develop and encourage employment opportunities for our graduates in the areas of science and technology.”

The Rotary program includes a salute to emerging technology firms who have been built on RTP’s nearly six decade old foundation. They also represent a cornucopia of amazing tech that were only dreams of science fiction from authors such as Issac Asimov (robots) and Aldous Huxley (Brave New World):

  • TransEnterix (surgical robots)
  • PrecisionHawk (drones)
  • Panaceutics (biotech)
  • Metabolon (biotech)
  • Medicago (biotech)
  • Locus Biosciences (biotech)
  • Improved Nature (biotech)
  • bioMason (biotech; construction)
  • AgBiome (biotech)
  • Advanced Animal Diagnostics (life science)

Also to be honored are five legends in scientific and business development: Mary-Dell Chilton, Dr. Mansukh Wani, Fred Brooks, Ivy Carroll, and Charles Hamner.

Looking to the future of the Park, Scott Levitan, president and CEO of the Research Triangle Foundation, will offer a preview of what’s to come as the Foundation continues to implement a master plan unveiled in 2011. [Part of that vision is depicted with the rendering included at the top of this post.]

A time to reflect, to dream

Few if any know today where Amazon HQ2 will go. Or the new Apple project and its thousands of jobs. The reality, however, is that the Triangle is competing for both.

Without RTP and the political, private sector and education leaders who had the vision as well as the fortitude to build this region into what it has become, neither Amazon nor Apple would even given North Carolina more than a cursory look.

So today is really a day of celebration – remembering the past, savoring the present and looking forward to, we pray, an ever-brighter future.