Smart Collaboration Leads to SmartGrid

ARTICLE | Oct 10, 2011

Collaboration among public officials and universities sounds good on paper, but getting the two entities to make things happen takes more than just good intentions. Universities are notorious for focusing more on research than results. Meanwhile, public officials must patch together a multitude of differing opinions and constituencies before “pulling the trigger” on projects. One area of the country, however, seems to have found the right mix.

The “Triangle” area of North Carolina is blessed with three Tier I institutions – the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University and North Carolina State University. As a result, companies, government agencies and non-profits have been attracted to the area for its highly educated workforce, resulting in the development of a number of “cluster” industries, such as biotechnology, analytics, and healthcare.

But it’s the partnerships between public officials and university leaders over the years that have really made this economic engine work. Take Centennial Campus. Originally farming land owned by the state of North Carolina to be used for a mental health facility, the governor in 1984 (James B. Hunt, Jr.) deeded the land over to NC State University for future growth. But instead of just expanding the main campus, university, government and business leaders chose to build a research park. Now, Centennial Campus is one of the premier university-owned research parks in North America. Home to more than 60 corporate, governmental and non-profit “partners,” the campus has become one of the top selling points for Raleigh, Wake County and North Carolina in its recruitment efforts. Perhaps more importantly, the campus has become a “test bed” for research in smart grid technology.

Here’s how it was developed.

The Triangle area already had a foothold in smart grid technology with the presence of several companies located in the area, such as ABB and Cisco. Drawing on those strengths plus the technological expertise of several of its faculty, NC State’s College of Engineering (located on Centennial) applied for and received a five-year, $18 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to integrate the country’s current electrical grid with alternative technologies. As a result, the FREEDM Systems Center emerged on Centennial Campus, where researchers now work on solving problems in battery technology, solid state transformers, and solar energy. 

The presence of the FREEDM Center has now spawned interest by established and startup companies interested in tapping into the Center’s research, including state and local public officials. For example, a Plug-In electric car conference recently wrapped up a four-day run in Raleigh. It was the first time the conference, which draws car makers and utility planners from around the country, had been held on the East Coast. Event planners attribute their interest in the city to the FREEDM Center research and commitment on the part of city, county and state planners to make the Triangle a hub of smart grid and alternative technology activity.

City, county and state economic development officials also use the FREEDM Center and other research entities on the three campuses as strong selling points in their recruitment activities. With companies always on the lookout for a highly educated workforce to gain a competitive advantage, having a number of skilled college graduates in one area quickly gets the attention of corporate and governmental executives. But the collaboration doesn’t stop with research centers.

Raleigh city officials are now aggressively pursuing a collaboration with NC State to tap into the university’s technology transfer activities, where patents and new technologies developed by faculty researchers are turned into marketable products. The university’s Vice Chancellor of Research, Innovation and Economic Development, Terri Lomax, has initiated ongoing discussions with Raleigh city council and downtown leaders on ways to forge an innovation incubator that taps into the university’s expertise. While these discussions are still in their infancy, both sides are determined to move forward with something concrete, whether it’s a physical location for fostering innovation or informal agreements where both sides bring something to the table.

Collaboration has become a key component of any discussions regarding innovation for one very simple reason – funding cutbacks are causing all sides to find additional resources. Going it alone doesn’t make sense in this current economic climate. As a result, partnerships which in the past may have seemed either impractical or unlikely are now commonplace. Cities are partnering with universities. Cities are partnering with each other. Universities are stitching together partnerships that include corporations, faculty researchers, government officials and even non-profits in an effort to maximize resources. This trend will likely continue as relationships strengthen and success emerges out of these collaborations. Despite old notions of adversarial “town and gown” issues, cities and counties are wise to find common ground with colleges and universities to spark innovation, whether it’s in the area of smart grid technology, smart textiles, advanced analytics or any number of exciting research clusters that could generate innovation and jobs. The risk of not initiating these collaborations is far greater than the benefits received. §

Gene Pinder is the Director of Marketing and Communications for NC State’s Centennial Campus.

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