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From Site Selection magazine, July 2023

A Bigger Leadership Table Can Accelerate Innovation

City Square connects residents, students, professionals and entrepreneurs in the heart of Philadelphia’s University City innovation district.
Photos courtesy of University City Science Center

by Mark Arend

onsider the governance structure of the research or science park with which your organization is most closely affiliated. Your company may have an R&D lab in an urban innovation district, or it may be a tenant at a university-run research park on the outskirts of town. Perhaps you’re looking for space where it can pursue product development and commercialization. Many factors determine the best location for innovation activities — cost of real estate, access to talent and capital and where employees want to work, for example. Who is at the table steering the direction of the science park so that all stakeholders and the location itself benefit? Does the table come with extensions?

Research & Sci Pks BG-oneIt’s important for all research parks to understand the fundamental gaps within their ecosystem and who needs to be around the table to address that.”

Tiffany Wilson, President & CEO, University City Science Center, Philadelphia

A strong case can be made for having multiple universities and other key participants at the table and that a nonprofit foundation should be in charge of setting it. Today’s challenges seeking innovative solutions are too complex for one academic or other entity to tackle. Take agriculture and food supply, for example. Work on one facet, like crop productivity, soon touches such areas as energy, water security and availability, environmental and climate issues, air quality, medicine and community health and wellness. 

“There are people who excel in different parts of that big picture that should be a part of finding those solutions,” says Mason Ailstock, president of the Rowen Foundation, which is overseeing development of Rowen, a 2,400-acre knowledge community northeast of Atlanta that will focus on innovation in the medical, environmental and agriculture fields. “Knowledge communities are better when they understand it’s not one finite problem to take on. There are so many connections — let’s have as many experts involved in that as we can.” 

Rowen’s Board of Directors includes representatives from five area higher education institutions: University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, Emory University, Spelman College and Georgia Gwinnett College.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm around Rowen, a lot of eyebrows being raised,” says Ailstock. “One economic development colleague in the private sector told us that Georgia has never had anything like this — this scale, led by a nonprofit with multiple universities, a very clear vision of the types of companies we want to recruit. He said as a site selector, that makes his job much easier. It means he won’t bring us 100 deals a year, but for the ones that fit well with what we want to do, Rowen will be extremely competitive.”

Diversity Drives Entrepreneurship

The University City Science Center (UCSC) in Philadelphia is the oldest urban science park in the U.S., having been founded in 1963. It’s a key driver of the $68 billion in ecosystem value created from July 2020 to December 2022. Its 24-member Board of Directors includes representatives from universities, banks, investors, law firms, a medical device company and a company that trains and employs neurodiverse adults to carry out project-based work, including software development, software testing, database analytics, cybersecurity, back-office accounting, data entry and auditing reports.

Research & Sci Pks BG-two

Mason Ailstock, President, Rowen Foundation

“It’s a huge mistake to have only universities and/or healthcare systems at the center of the innovation activity,” UCSC President and CEO Tiffany Wilson tells Site Selection. “There needs to be some sort of neutral activity that serves as the convener to bring together all the stakeholders that touch innovation on its way to making society better. Many universities think they can do it all themselves — they want to own the public relations and the money. But fundamentally they do not have the capacity to achieve a sustainable entrepreneurial ecosystem without the engagement of the private sector. The notion of expanding the table is critical and timely.”

Wilson says healthcare is a recent focus of UCSC, which includes helping entrepreneurs in digital health, diagnostics, pharmaceuticals and other fields scale their technologies and achieve marketplace adoption. The Science Center is convening stakeholders in the healthcare sector to facilitate that process. At the same time, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is central to its mission of prioritizing the technologies that can help address health equity issues and prioritize its programming and meetings.

“We’re thinking more proactively, more inclusively, about the customers we need to engage with to bring to the startups that will help connect those dots,” says Wilson. “We’ve added a chief medical affairs officer [Kevin Baumlin, MD] to our team to help us in this area. He speaks healthcare executive, he speaks physician, he’s an informaticist and can help us connect better with those people. Consistent with the DEI theme, we’re investing more time in helping diverse founders of innovative life sciences and healthcare technologies who otherwise wouldn’t have the means or support from their networks to try an entrepreneurial path. It’s important for all research parks to understand the fundamental gaps within their ecosystem and who needs to be around the table to address that.”

Complexity Requires Teamwork 

Rowen’s Mason Ailstock concurs.

“Understanding the complexities of the many relationships you deal with on a day-to-day basis on your Board, in the community, inside the universities and other partners; crafting clear objectives that are both near term to see success in shorter timelines, but also passing a long-term vision of what you believe you can create together around this bigger table is an exciting thing to do. It takes a team, because you need that diversity of inputs, even within your own team, that have different experiences, that have different convictions and passions to notice blind spots, to make the invitation to be present in different conversations.

“There is inherent complexity associated with building a bigger table and building these places that are truly meant to be multi-generational,” Ailstock says. “If we really do our jobs, then we have our hands in these places, in building these tables and creating the space and the resources for all these folks to be successful.”  

Mark Arend
Editor Emeritus of Site Selection magazine

Mark Arend

Mark Arend is editor emeritus of Site Selection, and previously served as editor in chief from 2001 to 2023. Prior to joining the editorial staff in 1997, he worked for 10 years in New York City at Wall Street Computer Review, ABA Banking Journal and Global Investment Technology. Mark graduated from the University of Hartford (Conn.) in 1985 and lives near Atlanta, Georgia.


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