Research Triangle Park – This year marks the 65th anniversary of RTI International. Founded in 1958, the non-profit was the first tenant of the new Research Triangle Park and was started by the Park’s own founders.

Today the organization represents the enormous success of the RTP concept and many of the institutions it contains. Alongside the anniversary, RTI is also celebrating its CEO, Tim Gabel, who hits 40 years with the organization this month. I asked Tim some questions about his years of experience and growth with the organization, and what he sees for the future.

Can you describe what first brought you to RTI? What was appealing about the company/role?

It was the summer of 1983 and I had just graduated from the University of Wyoming. I was working as a bartender at a mountain resort with no professional job prospects. One of my professors was on sabbatical at RTI at the time and set up an interview for me. I got the call to fly to Des Moines, Iowa, to meet my future first supervisor at a conference. The next thing I knew, I had a job offer as an assistant statistician working on a pesticide use study for the Environmental Protection Agency. I drove across the country, sight unseen, to North Carolina, to a place called Research Triangle Park. I was so naïve, so young and I had no professional work experience at all. My parents were so proud; I was so proud – even though I took a pay cut from the bartending gig. Now, 40 years later, sometimes I have to pinch myself to even think about how things turned out.

What do you recall about your first impressions of the company?

It was fun! We were much smaller then, and it seemed like everyone knew everyone. We had a softball league, bowling league, and volleyball team. I was in heaven!

I realized that RTI was full of very smart people. I was a little intimidated at first, working alongside so many PhDs. But quickly I found out that everyone was friendly and encouraging. People always took time to answer questions or to provide guidance, which is still true today.

As time went on, I gained a deeper appreciation for RTI’s mission-driven culture. From the senior leaders on down, there’s a passion for solving big problems and positively impacting the well-being of people around the globe.

June 2023, RTI International President and CEO Tim Gabel and Executive Vice President forInternational Development Paul Weisenfeld take part in presentations by RTI project staff in Kisumu, Kenya.

RTI International President and CEO Tim Gabel and Executive Vice President for International Development Paul Weisenfeld take part in presentations by RTI project staff in Kisumu, Kenya, June 2023.

You spent ten, very pivotal years as EVP for Social, Statistical, and Environmental Sciences. What was that period like for you with the immense advancements in health, data, and analytics – among other things – during that time?

As head of SSES, I oversaw approximately 3,000 staff conducting a variety of research and technical assistance projects. I am proud to say together we grew the group from $391M to $667M in annual sponsored research. These were complex multi-year, multi-million-dollar research studies that enabled government clients to make better policy decisions for citizens in the areas of health, education, justice, environment, and economic development.

Key to our success was a willingness to move with the market, making strategic shifts as we needed to. Advances in information technology and the emergence of social media kept us focused on innovation, which certainly contributed to our success.

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You’ve been in the role of CEO now for a year and a half. How have your experiences in positions throughout the company shaped your vision?

As CEO, it’s been helpful to have served in a wide range of positions and leadership jobs. I’ve experienced firsthand the variety of ways we have an impact, and my most important role in leading RTI is to ensure that all our staff, partners, and funders share in the vision of expanding and amplifying our impact.

Over my career, I’ve seen that the broad diversity of things that we do can sometimes make it difficult to orient everyone in a common direction. For this reason, we’ve developed a navigational beacon to guide us in our journey toward even greater impact, particularly in providing science-based solutions in climate, education, health, and equity. This beacon is well-aligned with our mission to improve the human condition by turning knowledge into practice, and is something every member of our team, no matter their role, can take pride in and contribute to.

RTI is also celebrating its 65th anniversary. What has the company achieved in that time that you are most proud of, and how did you contribute to that achievement?

We have accomplished many milestones along the way, so I’ll share a few highlights. We pioneered the technology that led to cochlear implants. We assisted the South African government with its transition from the apartheid education system. The Early Grade Reading Assessment we developed to measure reading performance leaves a legacy of impact for more than two million children in 75 countries, who may have a brighter future as a result.

Since the late 1980s we’ve collected and analyzed the data that monitor the use of illicit drugs, alcohol, and tobacco in every state in the U.S. We worked with the Centers for Disease Control to study the long-term health effects in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita and monitor the health outcomes of emergency workers following 9/11. We’ve provided public health research and guidance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

I’ve had the privilege of working directly or indirectly on many of these projects over the years. I think my most important role, especially when leading various practice areas and lines of business, has been to keep our culture strong and ensure we have an employee-friendly environment such that brilliant researchers and project teams can do their best work.

North Carolina Central University, NCCU, Center for Applied Research in Environmental Sciences, CARES, lab, ribbon cutting

RTI International President and CEO Tim Gabel, North Carolina Central University Chancellor Johnson O. Akinleye, and their teams launch a new partnership and shared lab space to study the role the environment plays on health and disease and its disproportionate impact on underserved populations, May 2022.

Obviously, RTI has a huge connection to the Triangle, and it’s been a symbiotic relationship. What are some ways you’ve seen RTI and the Triangle grow together?

In 1958, RTI became RTP’s first anchor tenant based on the vision of public and private sector leaders and university partners, who wanted to keep the best and brightest minds here in the state. We are fortunate to have a thriving business culture in North Carolina and to be strategically located in a region with an excellent quality of life, which helps attract and retain talent. At 6,000 staff and $1.2B in annual revenue, RTI is bigger than it’s ever been.

The same is true of the Triangle. Our region has become a vibrant hub for life sciences, biotech, analytics, and technology, etc. and RTI’s growth mirrors that as well. Maintaining our close connection to the Triangle community is important to us and frankly, it’s one of the reasons for our success.

For example, last year, we partnered with North Carolina Central University to launch a new partnership and shared lab space to drive health research with an environmental justice focus. Researchers from both institutions are working shoulder-to-shoulder to study the role the environment plays on health and disease and the disproportionate impact on underserved populations – right here on our RTP campus. Our work here is developing a model, which we’re beginning to replicate in other states for further impact.

When I think about RTI’s origin story, it’s tied to a focus on economic development in our state. Now, 65 years later, I think we’ve come full circle. Rather than being one of the seeds that were planted, we have the opportunity to help stimulate more innovation and success not just in the Triangle, but across North Carolina, and that’s something we intend to do.

RTI is really good at looking for solutions. What are some of the biggest worldwide challenges that have emerged during your tenure at RTI, and how do you think RTI has combated those? What challenges remain on the horizon that you feel need priority?

To better understand and support individuals who have mental health conditions or use substances, we have partnered with the federal government to design and administer the National Survey on Drug Use and Health since 1988. This project set the gold standard for how the U.S. measures drug use and health. The data collected from more than 60,000 interviews each year helps shed light on the public health challenges and informs related policy to help address these challenges and reduce their impact.

On a global scale, we are tackling several big problems including controlling and eliminating neglected tropical diseases, closing the health disparities gap, enhancing education opportunities, addressing pandemics, improving public safety, and expanding affordable energy. The need for science-based solutions remains and RTI will be there making an impact for global good.

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I’m sure no one is pushing you out the door, but do you have any thoughts on retirement? What are you looking forward to for a post-RTI Tim Gabel?

I don’t have a retirement date in mind, but I do think a lot about the reverse of your question. What does a post-Tim Gabel RTI look like? My vision is of an institute that is even more diverse and globally oriented. I see an organization that’s renowned for developing great leaders and scientists who, even if they move on to other opportunities, carry with them a commitment to always improve the human condition. We will be a place where every employee, no matter their background, can be their authentic self.

RTI is a special place – mission-driven and growth-minded – and my intent is to do everything in my power to ensure the RTI of 65 years from now is even more impactful than we are today.

FACT BOX: Tim Gabel

Title: President and CEO, RTI International
University of Wyoming
B.S. Statistics and Computer Science
Duke University
MBA, Business Administration

RTI Positions:
1983 to 1997 –  Multiple research roles
1997 to 1999 –  Manager, Operations and Business Development
1999 to 2005 –  Director, Research Computing Division
2005 to 2012 –  Unit Vice President, Survey and Computing Sciences
2012 to 2022 –  Executive Vice President, Social, Statistical, and Environmental Sciences
2022 to present –  President and CEO

RTI International President and CEO Tim Gabel and Executive Vice President for International Development Paul Weisenfeld during a site visit to the KenGen Olkaria Geothermal Power Generation Plant in Naivasha, Kenya where they generate electricity from hydro, geothermal, thermal and wind power.

RTI International President and CEO Tim Gabel and Executive Vice President for International Development Paul Weisenfeld during a site visit to the KenGen Olkaria Geothermal Power Generation Plant in Naivasha, Kenya where they generate electricity from hydro, geothermal, thermal, and wind power.