UNL's Innovation Campus grows despite budget woes at university

South Dakota State University is four years into the development of their Innovation Campus, and has completed an administration building, a laboratory and infrastructure.

Story, photos and video by Andrew McClure, NewsNetNebraska

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Innovation Campus may be just a sprawling tract of dirt and cleared land, but developers are already are beating the bushes to find tenants.

Since the university acquired the land that housed the Nebraska State Fair in 2009, there has been a great amount of background work to prepare for the integration required to make Innovation Campus a success.

For researchers, that means conversations with clients ranging from startups to big companies looking to invest in the university. And for the developer of the site, Nebraska Nova, a subsidiary of Utah-based Woodbury Corp., it means making a $15 million investment to developing onsite infrastructure, in preparation for the buildings that will go on the campus.

Across the state, tight budgets and a bad economy have some raising questions about whether a campus like this is feasible during rough economic times. The university is cutting some departments and positions to save money. Economic recovery has been painfully slow.

But Ryan Anderson, director of industry relations for UNL, said that the university has partnered with companies who are working in the interest of both themselves and the university.

Working with companies that already have a strong foothold in the university community is crucial to the success of the park, according to Anderson.

“I think what’s important to note here is that the university already has high deal flow with outside firms,” Anderson said. “We have built-in relationships; you have to have a good relationship, a good rapport.”

A major selling point for the university in wooing companies is a labor pool in the student body. Student workers and interns will be readily available, an enticing prospect for future tenants of the new campus.

“We’re tier one recruiting for a lot of them,” Anderson said.

He added that companies are very interested in what universities have to offer.

“There’s an appetite that exists among all large corporations for university research,” he said.

And as it builds the park, UNL is looking around the region to see how other schools have developed similar parks.

Teresa McKnight heads South Dakota State University’s Innovation Campus, which is located in Brookings, S.D., about 250 miles north of Lincoln. The SDSU campus is similar in design to the proposed UNL Innovation Campus.

SDSU has attracted several companies to take space in its park. Such partners are indispensable, said McKnight. When corporate names start popping up on the campus, the public sees its value, she suggested.

Setting that opportunity for growth will be easy for UNL to do, Anderson said, because of what the university has done to prepare for Innovation Campus.

“[We have been] reaching out to all sizes of companies, in all areas,” Anderson said. “All are welcome, provided they have a substantive relationship with the university, and that they are interested in being part of an innovation ecosystem.”

Although these changes are significant to the way certain departments operate, the long-term investment in the future of Innovation Campus is for the better, according to McKnight.

She said UNL’s approach looks good for the most part, but there are always concerns when it comes to this type of large investment and reliance on future collaboration.

“At the end of the day, the success from this research park is going to breed success for all those partners that have come together to make this project successful,” McKnight said. There’s no room for turf battles or personal disputes. “If personalities and individual territories get in play, they will not be successful.”

Although many states are in rough shape due to the economy, McKnight said states such as Nebraska and South Dakota have been relatively sheltered from the economic downturn, and this is an excellent opportunity for developing innovation campuses to begin.

An investment in an Innovation Campus is a 30-40 year one, which includes developing infrastructure, bringing in clients and building spaces for them to work. Promoters of development like this urge politicians and university officials to look beyond today’s money pressures.

The ability to turn that talk into progress  is going to be crucial for UNL, as the initial progress will be in the form of renovated buildings and developed infrastructure.

Proposed photo of UNL’s Innovation Campus. Courtesy of http://innovate.unl.edu/

With UNL’s Innovation Campus’ $15 million investment from Woodbury Corp. and Gov. Dave Heineman’s pledge of $25 million during the next two years, there is a base that has been built to help get the campus off the ground.

Such investments show the ability of states with stable economies to invest in a long-term opportunity like Innovation Campus. Officials say the states will benefit from the investment for many years to come.

Yet with recent budget cuts at UNL, some are wondering about the potential negative effects the investment in Innovation Campus could have on other programs during the next few decades.

Blake Ritter, a senior industrial and management systems engineering major, woke up on April 14 to an email from UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman stating that his major and the entire department that offers it had been eliminated as part of an effort to trim $5 million from the budget.

“We are the only college in Nebraska that offered industrial engineering,” Ritter said. “I can go on Husker Hire Link [a university-based job search site] and find 50 positions for industrials in the Nebraska area.”

However, with no more graduates from UNL, there will be a shift in where employers go to find new workers.

“Since there is no longer an IMSE program in Nebraska, companies are forced to hire students from outside the state,” Ritter said.

In addition to the IMSE program, several high-level positions were cut in the departments of admissions and academic affairs.

Personnel changes and shifts in university academic programs are constant, however, university veterans say. When McKnight left Utah State University, she left after serving under five presidents of the university in the last 15 years. Since arriving at SDSU in 2006, she has been in control of the direction of the campus.

The SDSU 125-acre site will eventually accommodate 40 to 50 buildings.

Since she moved to Brookings, S.D., the university has constructed two buildings at its Innovation Campus, one for administrators of the campus and one for research. Several companies now operate in the campus’ Seed Technology Laboratory, which was finished last August. In her four years at the park, McKnight has overseen the development of infrastructure and the creation of the two buildings, a pace that is similar to that planned at UNL.

UNL expects to see infrastructure site work begin in 2012 and two buildings completed sometime in the next five years or so. The first, the 4-H Building, will become known as “Innovation Commons,” a place for conferences, private offices and some small incubation for companies getting started.

The second building is the Life Science Research Collaboration Center, which according to Innovation Campus publications, will be, “a cutting edge laboratory devoted to building teams for major life science research and education relating to food and energy.”

Nevertheless, the push toward construction on Innovation Campus has a strong financial backing from multiple sources that are willing to push the park and its future successes forward.

Motivating companies to make their way onto the UNL Innovation Campus will not be a problem, industrial relations director Anderson said. The ability to partner with a university and participate in high-level research that might not be feasible for smaller companies benefits UNL and the company.

Anderson knows that there will be lots of opportunities to bring new companies to UNL’s Innovation Campus, but understands UNL must begin from square one.

“You start with what you already have: existing, positive, functional partnerships. You evaluate what is already in place.”

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