Region Still Holds Awe Factor Across Globe

TBJ OP ED"A recent trip to Thailand offered a valuable opportunity to talk about – and appreciate – the enviable assets that enable North Carolina's Research Triangle Region to lead the world when it comes to innovation."

By Charles A. Hayes
President & CEO, Research Triangle Regional Partnership

This Guest Column appeared in the April 13, 2012, edition ofTriangle Business Journal.

Traveling to distant lands often provides the clearest view of what makes our own communities unique. A recent trip to Thailand offered a valuable opportunity to talk about – and appreciate – the enviable assets that enable North Carolina's Research Triangle Region to lead the world when it comes to innovation.

My 10-day tour through Thailand – a 4,000-year-old country only now emerging as an industrial economy – came at the request of the U.S. Department of State. Officials with our government believe our 13-county region stands out as a shining example of how collaborative, regionally based job creation and business development strategies offer the most viable blueprint for creating a culture of innovation and sustainable prosperity. My opportunity to meet and speak to numerous high-level audiences in Thailand emerged from the Thai-U.S. Creative Partnership, a venture founded in 2010 by the U.S. Embassy in Thailand and the Royal Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Its goal: linking leaders from business, government and higher education in both our countries around the theme of creative economies.

Speaking before groups of Thai leaders that ranged in size from 15 to 1,000 participants, I found audiences there eager to hear about the Research Triangle Region’s “Triple Helix” approach to innovation and regional prosperity. The model forges strategic and operational collaboration between industry, government agencies and educational institutions – interactions in R&D, commercialization, market development, public policy innovation and more. When done well, the Triple Helix model supports corporate recruitment, business expansion, entrepreneurial development and the attraction of the most creative minds from around the world. We’ve long suspected our region does this well. U.S. government officials and their counterparts in Thailand obviously now agree.

The trip also provided ample evidence that the Research Triangle Region is an economic player on the global stage. In addition to meeting with dozens of Thai academics and business leaders, I also had a chance encounter with students and faculty of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, whose Global Executive MBA program happened to be holding classes in the same hotel. I met with officials of the Kenan Institute Asia, a Thailand-based nonprofit created by the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at UNC-Chapel Hill. Our region no longer is just a role model for other Southern states. Our institutions now profoundly influence people, policies and programs on the other side of the world.

There was widespread interest in our premiere science parks – Research Triangle Park and Centennial Campus, both of which are well-known to Thai officials who are struggling to find solutions to economic disparity and rock-bottom wage levels. While many regions around the world can boast of having high-quality science parks, our success in leveraging RTP and Centennial Campus in elevating the entire region’s economic profile has been unparalleled. And while it’s tempting to shape a science park’s brand around a single high-growth industry, the Research Triangle region’s success has stemmed from a diversified vision that has spanned life sciences, “Clean” technologies, digital media, defense solutions and advance manufacturing – a strategy that has yielded not only value-added interactions inside each of these industry clusters, but world-leading collaboration across them as well.

Of greatest importance, such recognition by U.S. government officials and foreign nations speaks volumes about North Carolina’s pioneering tradition of job creation and business attraction. Our state’s regional economic development partnerships, of which Research Triangle Regional Partnership is one, are themselves highly respected as models of innovation. Established in the mid-1990s by the General Assembly, our regional partnerships are part of a “troika” that harnesses economic development leadership from state, local and regional organizations. North Carolina’s system provides the ideal balance of regional flexibility and a reliable, resonant statewide brand. States as varied as Massachusetts and Mississippi, Michigan and Kansas are exploring the possibility of replicating North Carolina’s regional economic development delivery model, which pulls together financial, technical and in-kind support from a broad array of public, private and philanthropic interests.

There is much we can learn when taking our message around the globe. Chief among the lessons is that in perfecting our own homegrown solutions for regional prosperity, North Carolina and its Research Triangle Region are quietly inspiring the rest of the world.