TBJ: State of RTRP event: What these execs say the region needs to work on

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By Lauren K. Ohnesorge  – Senior Staff Writer, Triangle Business Journal

Keynote speakers Joel Marcus, chairman and CEO of Alexandria Real Estate Equities, and serial entrepreneur Cindy Whitehead didn’t sugar coat their messages to Triangle business leaders at Wednesday’s State of the Research Triangle Region event, held in downtown Raleigh.

The Triangle – with all its attributes – is still lacking when it comes to urbanization and funding.

But both say business leaders can lobby for change.

Marcus, whose California real estate company has invested a third of a billion dollars in the Triangle, told leaders he’d like to invest more cash. His firm is trying to create an agtech cluster in Research Triangle Park and wants to bring in even more companies.

“But is the region ready?” he says, pointing to some gaps felt in the Triangle that ARE doesn’t feel in some of its other markets – specifically state funding support, transit mobility and early stage funding.

“Where the report card stacks up here is not an A or even a solid B, it may be in the B- area,” he says. “I’d say the region is falling behind in how it thinks about the urbanization of the Triangle.”

He questioned whether the Research Triangle Foundation is doing enough to promote that urbanization – as well as to facilitate more collaboration with the area’s universities.

And for all the funding resources, there’s still a gap for early stage life sciences entrepreneurs – and it’s hard to fill, he claims. ARE, which has brought an agtech accelerator to RTP, has tried to take a leadership role in tackling that issue, he says. The company tried to bring a pharmaceuticals-focused accelerator to the Triangle, but ultimately suspended its plans when “one of the big universities turned down our plea to bring that platform here by not approving their share of funding.”

“We were pretty disappointed,” he says.

Cindy Whitehead, a serial entrepreneur with two exits under her belt – including that of Sprout Pharmaceuticals, the firm behind the first FDA-approved female sexual dysfunction drug, says she wants to invest in the region too – and says it takes more bets by local leaders to breach that funding gap.

She points to serial entrepreneurs such as Scot Wingo as an example of what the region needs more of, noting he’s known for mentoring entrepreneurs – not just for co-founding ChannelAdvisor and Spiffy. She points to Jesse Lipson (the entrepreneur behind ShareFile) and Brooks Bell (the entrepreneur behind the company of the same name), who helped bring about entrepreneurship initiative HQRaleigh, and Michael Goodmon of Capital Broadcasting, as other supporters of the entrepreneurial “ecosystem.” She says Raleigh needs more community builders – and that she’s trying to become one with her new venture, The Pink Ceiling.

After two exits, Whitehead says she knew her company – aimed at promoting and investing in female entrepreneurs or female-focused companies – would be based in Raleigh.

“The talent is right here,” she says. “Their ability to stretch their dollar further is right here.”

Whitehead says her dollars could go to Silicon Valley, where entrepreneurs “walk into the room and declare they are the next unicorn,” or in New York, where they “assure me they are among the elite and have all the right power circles to be successful.” Or she could invest in Triangle entrepreneurs, who she calls “workhorses who will actually become the next unicorns.”

But luring more dollars from investors like her requires regional visibility, she says.

Whitehead challenged the crowd to talk about what she calls “truths,” accolades that showcase the region’s attributes.

“Be a Triangle truths teller,” she says.

Wednesday’s event was hosted by the Research Triangle Regional Partnership.

Read the article here.