New ‘innovation hub’ headquartered at WCU
Western Carolina University has been chosen as one of four universities leading an effort to bolster research innovation in North Carolina.
“I think it’s an incredible opportunity that the university is really, really excited to be a part of,” said WCU Economic Development Director Rich Price. “I think it further illustrates our commitment to the economic wellbeing of this region but allows us to partner at a statewide level.”
The opportunity comes from an organization called NCInnovation, which received $500,000,000 over the next two years in the recently passed state budget . An unpaid, 13-member board will oversee the organization, with each house of the General Assembly appointing four of those members. The organization aims to help more university researchers turn their ideas into commercial products — especially researchers at rural schools.
Founded as a nonprofit in 2022, NCInnovation is the result of years of conversations with state business leaders about investments other states are making in innovation. The group commissioned research to investigate the situation in North Carolina and found that, even though the state’s universities have some of the country’s highest research and development expenditures, their output was lacking, as measured by creation of new businesses and licensing agreements from the final products of that research.
“The data shows that the Research Triangle is doing just fine in terms of commercializing research, but it’s a lot different of a story elsewhere in the state,” said Pat Ryan, spokesperson for NCInnovation.
The Research Triangle accounted for a full 87% of university research and development expenditures in 2020, the data showed. WCU received only .069% of that funding, while UNC Asheville got 0.11%.
NCInnovation aims to change the equation.
Compared to other states’ efforts to fund innovation, NCInnovation is unique in three ways, Ryan said. First, it focuses entirely on the university system, of which North Carolina has one of the nation’s best. Second, it concentrates on universities located outside of urban centers. And finally, rather than relying on an ongoing funding commitment from the state, it will put the $500,000,000 into an endowment fund, fueling the organization’s efforts in perpetuity.
“The idea is that NCInnovation will be able to operate forever if it just uses the interest returns on that endowment instead of the endowment itself,” Ryan said.
Interest from the endowment will be used for two main purposes. It will provide grants to university researchers, and it will offer them wraparound support services, including business mentorship and legal services for intellectual property and patenting. It will also cover a portion of salaries and administrative costs, but the $25 million in private contributions NCInnovation raised will cover many of those expenses.
“A lot of academic researchers are brilliant, but probably not a lot of them have started a company,” Ryan said. “That’s just a very different skillset.”
Along with WCU, East Carolina University, University of North Carolina Charlotte and North Carolina A&T will serve as the four regional hubs for NCInnovation. WCU’s expansion of applied engineering , connection to industry, economic development partnerships and “general culture of entrepreneurialism ” made it the best choice for the western region, Ryan said.
Price said the program could do exciting things for WCU faculty who often have trouble finding the funding they need to fully develop their ideas and find it challenging to balance a heavy teaching load with research.
“There is a lot of research that happens on this campus, a lot of great ideas, a lot of innovation,” Price said. “The challenge oftentimes, and particularly in a university like WCU, is that if we have faculty and students who are doing research, they’re having to sort of nickel and dime their way through. They’re having to try to write a grant for $5,00 here or $50,000 there, and oftentimes ideas will end up partially developed and then they simply can’t go any further because there’s not enough funding or there are not enough resources to help move that into a fully realized new and innovative product that can be commercialized.”
Price wants to see grant funds from the endowment provide reliable funding for key projects, and he also hopes that some of the money can be used to free up more research time for faculty members.
“Some of these funds can potentially be used to not only buy down some of that teaching load but also then help us with replacing those with adjunct instructors or new faculty in order to create an environment that is more conducive to research and product development,” he said.
NCInnovation is now in the process of onboarding its newly hired slate of regional directors — one for the west, one for the east, one for the piedmont and one for the Charlotte area. Meagan Coneybeer, regional innovation network director for the western region, will be headquartered at WCU, likely leading to strong connections with researchers there. However, she’ll also be working with university researchers throughout the region west of Interstate 77. Coneybeer’s job will be to build a network in the western region that helps NCInnovation make grant decisions and form its understanding of the state’s research portfolio and connects industry, researchers and finance to spur economic growth.
Right now, the effort is just beginning. Regional innovation directors like Coneybeer are spending time in the field, getting familiar with the state’s applied research portfolio and current opportunities. The General Assembly is finalizing its eight appointments to the NCInnovation Board of Directors, and NCInnovation is making the transition from advocacy to operational mode. The first call for grant applications will likely go out in mid-2024.
The program’s impact is expected to stretch far beyond campus boundaries. Research that leads to patents and successful commercial products can create real economic impact, providing jobs for the people who make, market and sell that product. From that standpoint, NCInnovation also functions as a rural economic development program, Ryan said.
“We think it’s a very exciting time not only from the university’s perspective in this but for all of Western North Carolina to really be able to compete and hopefully develop new products and create lots of new jobs,” Price added.
An earlier version of this story reported that the General Assembly had appropriated $500,000 over two years for NCInnovation. The correct amount is $500,000,000.