Why Innovation Districts Need to Continually Pivot

A new container shipping space for collaboration, retail and community events is helping a 62-year-old research park reinvent itself.

North Carolina’s Boxyard only opened in June, yet all tenant offerings are occupied, as people within the Research Triangle Park (RTP) and surrounding areas flock to eat, drink, collaborate and innovate.

RTP was created in 1959 and fits roughly into a triangle, cornered by Durham, Raleigh and Chapel Hill. It was one of the first of its kind in the US and is now home to 300 companies that partner with universities like North Carolina Chapel Hill, Duke, North Carolina State, and others.

“In three months, Boxyard almost has the same brand recognition in our region as RTP,” says Scott Levitan, CEO and President of Research Triangle Foundation, the body that oversees the park. “Just imagine how transformational that is.”

For tenants, the containers provide a space for entrepreneurs in the food, hospitality, retail and events industries.

“We were very purposeful about making sure that they were local companies,” explains Levitan. “Most of the tenants are women, or minority-owned. The model is to attract the entrepreneurial business community and be a place for people to come.”

Creating a cooperative environment

RTP was originally designed for innovative companies to stand alone on private, isolated campuses. Companies, like IBM, wanted to protect their privacy and intellectual property and so workers would drive in, eat a discounted lunch on company premises and drive home with little if any interaction outside their office.

This changed over time to incorporate a more effective method of undertaking translational research. Companies soon began to partner with RTP-associated universities, as not just a source of talent, but to undertake research which the companies would then further fund when the potential was identified.

“[It became] a much more open and collaborative relationship and business model,” says Levitan. “Privatised individual business campuses don’t make as much sense anymore, and worldwide that’s pretty ubiquitous.”

Pivoting to Start-ups and Entrepreneurs

This thinking accelerated when in 2015 the last tenant of a multi building campus of office overflow space left half a million square feet of building space available.

“We were unsure about whether entrepreneurial folks could see themselves or imagine themselves in RTP, as its reputation was a big company campus,” explains Levitan.

The foundation began slowly spending a small amount of money on the ground floor of one of the buildings to create a free co-working space that offered coffee and Wi-Fi, to see if creative freelancers, start-ups, STEM professionals and emerging companies would think of RTP as a creative space.

“In fact, it became so popular that those initial entrepreneurs and small companies decided to lease suites or small offices that were leftover from the tenant improvements,” says Levitan.

A New Frontier

Frontier RTP, as that section of the park is now known, became fully leased within four years and has added 100 companies to RTP’s total.

Frontier’s success has led the foundation to take on an even more ambitious US$1.5-billion project called HUB. It will provide RTP with a new “town centre” which will be mixed development and offer apartments, an experiential retail centre, offices, lab space, and a hotel, all centred around a sustainable landscape.

The foundation is fortunate in that it can sell some land to pay for the initial US$110-million infrastructure costs, yet as Levitan is quick to add, that is half of the foundation’s total assets. Another important aspect is that as RTP is a county, not a municipality, it is a self-taxing district.

Companies based in RTP even voted to tax themselves US$1 million dollars a year for 10 years to raise US$10 million dollars to help support the HUB project. The companies see the potential and future need of attracting talent and are happily buying in, as is Durham County which will invest US$20 million.

Right now, Boxyard is helping fulfil what had long been neglected in RTP, an urban centre of gravity, and is laying the foundations for an even bigger urban centre of gravity with HUB.

“We’re just really excited that Boxyard is so popular, and has caught on so quickly,” says Levitan. “It’s a leap of faith that RTP can provide the kind of foot traffic and business to support retail but Boxyard has proven it. RTP has really been about building the plane while we’re flying it. It’s been a big experiment since 1959, and it continues.”

Three points of advice for other innovation districts and their stakeholders from Scott Levitan, CEO and President of Research Triangle Foundation.

  • You’re going to have to take risks. It has to be advised risk, but you really have to go for it. Small incremental strategies are often not game changers.
  • Respond to what the market needs. You have to think about the product you’re creating. “I have worked in environments where a university or developer felt that the type of building they were building needed to reflect their reputation,” says Levitan. “And so we wound up building some really expensive building that missed the mark in terms of helping what entrepreneurial companies want–a space to allow them to focus on the product and the talent and minimise
  • Be ready to pivot on a dime. You have to be able to recognise and respond to opportunities that come along.

Looking for help to seed, scale or sustain innovation activity in your area?

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