Mason Ailstock assumed the post of president of the Association of University Research Parks (AURP) in late 2016. He brings more than 13 years of research park and innovation district experience to the table, including work as chief operating officer at Research Triangle Park in North Carolina and global partner manager at Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research in Greenville, S.C. His full-time job is vice president of operations at The University Financing Foundation, Inc., in Atlanta. Following are excerpts of an interview with Mr. Ailstock conducted in June 2017.
What are your goals as AURP president for the next two years?
Ailstock: My goals are in three areas — connect, elevate and enhance. The connect part is about wanting AURP to be the connecting organization for universities and research parks throughout North America and internationally for conversations about lessons learned and the data, support and capital necessary for them to be successful. Our 180 members want to share knowledge, and AURP is the platform for doing that. I want us to find more consistent and relational ways to connect people.
Elevate means bringing awareness to some of the outstanding research and development partners that are found at research parks. Research shows that companies starting out in a research park have a failure rate of around 19 percent, and the national average is well above 50 percent. I want to elevate facts like that to people — that research parks are the ideal location for them to be successful.
The third is enhance. Research parks and their real estate have a huge impact on our markets. Research parks just in North America contain about 150 million square feet of space. The economic impact that has is significant. I want to enhance that value so people understand, for example, how a university research park can work in partnership with or be included in innovation districts and how they can work together.
How are university research parks coming online today different than those developed in the past?
Ailstock: People and universities looking at creating research parks are being thoughtful about it. They recognize there are many models. Sometimes it starts in one building — one destination that is a convening point for industry and companies. People now don’t feel that they need to buy 100 acres in order to start a research park. They know there is value in understanding the resources they have internally, among people and research and industry, and being thoughtful about how to structure those and grow them organically. They then reach out to organizations like AURP to have a more detailed dialogue.
Research capabilities and access to talent increasingly are the diversifying factors that separate a university research park from an office complex that you would find anywhere. It’s really critical to have that direct connection the university brings to the recruitment and retention efforts that a subsequent research park wants to carry out.
The parks that are being created now, regardless of scale or the depth of research, are seeing that programming and operations that happen after a facility is built are the core components that drive whether it is a beautiful, quiet, lonely-feeling building or a dynamic, diverse location with ways and reasons to come together. [Building a traditional research building is fine], but it should be a part of a larger vision of a university research park. How will you program it and staff it, and shine a light on the great work that’s happening at the university and downtown and in the start-up hubs in your area? Those are the more challenging processes to go through. It forces you to look inwardly to your community for what’s there — you can’t just go and get what’s already at Stanford or in Boston or Atlanta. You have to use the tools you have before you.
Does it matter if a university research park is in an urban setting or a nonurban setting?
Ailstock: They have different sets of challenges and resources. We see the trend of people coming to the cities and those cities becoming more vibrant. There’s a greater density of churn and resources and amenities and live-work-play environments for research parks that are downtown. We need to be thoughtful about parks on the urban edges or suburban, which is a lot of them. About 80 percent of America is rural or suburban, and there are a lot of people there and a lot of great things going on in those spaces.
I like to challenge our membership and others that it’s not an either/or. There are lifestyle, entertainment, food and beverage, programming assets that can be part of a suburban park that you wouldn’t find downtown. It’s not about competing with downtown or replicating downtown. It’s about looking for qualities that can be incorporated into the research park that are complementary and create a unique destination. It’s a necessary challenge to take on.
What do parks not do that they should do to be more successful?
Ailstock: I’ve seen all sides of how research parks are thought of, created and operated. The consistent piece I’ve seen in terms of what parks do not do well is universities are not real estate developers. They often have tremendous real estate assets but not necessarily the experience and internal, technical abilities — and frankly I don’t think they should — to manage that real estate in a way that can turn that real estate into mission-driven, revenue-generating spaces. They do lots of academic and research things very well, but when it comes to actually building the space, the constraints and complex dynamics of real estate that often burden university-owned real estate assets are significant. It takes an experienced team and partner to work with a university to make it happen and also to make sure it doesn’t take 10 years to do. It’s not about just turning the real estate into a for-profit play. It’s about using those real estate assets in a mission-driven way to help strengthen the institution, but making sure they bring in the right real estate knowledge and skill sets to create those places with the greatest flexibility and return to the institution.