Editor’s note: Will Doran, WRAL state government reporter, took an in-depth look at economic development efforts in the new North Carolina state budget. A special point of emphasis: NCInnovation. Doran’s report is this week’s Innovation Thursday feature.
The budget’s biggest single project is NCInnovation. It’s an ambitious proposal that gets half a billion dollars over the next two years, much of it to soon be given to the state’s smartest people.
The idea behind NCInnovation — praised by JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, among other fans — is to commercialize the state’s brain trust, using grants aimed at turning academic research into successful start-up companies.
The Triangle area, home to several of the nation’s top research universities, is full of companies founded by professors. The best-known is SAS, the massive software company founded by a group of N.C. State University faculty members in the 1970s — including James Goodnight, the richest person in North Carolina, with a net worth of more than $7 billion in 2023, according to Forbes.
The leaders of NCInnovation think there are still many more ideas percolating on college campuses, waiting to be turned into profitable, job-creating companies.
“Other states have successfully used a public-private partnership model to harness innovation efforts from research universities so as to create jobs, to accelerate commercial opportunities, and to support the commercial growth and scale of emerging technologies,” the budget says. “North Carolina will benefit from similar efforts.”
The group’s board of directors includes UNC System President Peter Hans and multiple university chancellors, as well as banking, pharmaceutical and venture capital executives. That leadership could change, however. To get the $500 million in the budget, NCInnovation must agree to a number of requirements, including new oversight rules and letting state legislative leaders pick eight of its 13 board members.
Raleigh Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, D-Wake, said he thinks NCInnovation is a good idea in general, even if he’s a bit wary of putting so much money into a new and untested group.
Although a large sum, the $500 million the budget spends on NCInnovation is also barely one-third of the original $1.4 billion that Senate Republicans proposed spending on it. The $500 million price tag was a compromise with GOP leaders in the state House, who wanted to give the group just $50 million.