Auburn Research Park: High Tech Seeks High Yield

Just off South College Street — Auburn’s main drag — past the chain restaurants, retail outlets and hotels is Auburn Research Park, a cluster of imposing brick buildings in a bucolic setting that provides a sharp contrast to the nearby hustle and bustle.

Auburn Research Park, which opened in 2008, is Alabama’s newest university-affiliated research park. The 171-acre, mixed-use campus is driving economic development through entrepreneurship, innovation, collaboration and commercialization — fruitful ground where academia, business and government converge.

The Auburn Research and Technology Foundation (ARTF) is responsible for the development and operation of the Auburn Research Park and its Auburn Business Incubator. The park is the result of a partnership between Auburn University, the state of Alabama and the city of Auburn.

Tenants operate out of three large buildings, all of which were built to meet Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) standards. The park’s first tenant was Northrop Grumman’s National Work Force Center, which opened in September 2008. The center is part of a company initiative to provide high-quality, cost-effective technology centers throughout the United States as an alternative to off-shoring.

Another tenant is iK9 Holding Co., which has a licensing agreement through ARTF for Auburn’s Vapor Wake technology used to train canine teams to detect explosives. Developed at AU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, Vapor Wake is used by iK9 at the Canine Detection Training Center in Anniston, which is part of the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Animal Health and Performance Program.

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Auburn University’s MRI Research Center opened at the research park in 2010, a partnership with Siemens Corp. and AU’s Samuel Ginn College of Engineering. A local spine and neurosurgery office also occupies this building.

Tenants also include Heartland School Solutions, which handles child nutrition management and online payment solutions for public and private schools in the United States, a division of Heartland Payments Systems Inc., based in Princeton, N.J.

Johnson Sterling, a Birmingham-based financial advisement firm, also has a presence at the park, as does Aetos Technologies, a privately held technology development company that brings together university research and the commercial market. An equity partner with Auburn University, Aetos has licensed the rights to several Auburn-based patents.

Anyone interested in studying to become an osteopathic physician can now do so at the Auburn Research Park. The Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine will take up residence in a 90, 000-square-foot building at the park. The college, which also has campuses in Blacksburg, Va. and Spartanburg, S.C., recently received accreditation for its Auburn location and is recruiting students for 2015.

Several Auburn University entities reside at the park:  Small Business Development Center, Office of Technology Transfer, Food Systems Initiative and the Research Program Development Office.

Man designing parts for auto and aerospace companies.

Focus Engineering founder Sakthi Kandaswaamy designs custom precision parts for auto and aerospace companies in his young company in the Auburn incubator.

Playing a key role in getting the Auburn Research Park off the ground is John Weete, who became executive director of ARTF in 2007. Weete came to Auburn from West Virginia University, where he was vice president for research and economic development and president of the West Virginia University Research Corp.

When Weete moved to Auburn seven years ago, it wasn’t the first time. He served on the faculty and as an administrator at Auburn University from 1973 to 1998 — as professor in the department of botany and microbiology, and associate dean for research in the College of Science and Mathematics.

Weete’s daughter and son-in-law (both Auburn University graduates) live in Birmingham and have two young boys. Weete says his wife, Jennifer, was determined to move back to Alabama to be closer to their grandsons.

So when he retired from West Virginia University, instead of returning to Auburn to play golf — a favorite pastime — he moved back to begin yet another career as executive director of the ARTF.

“The timing was perfect, ” he says.

In addition to serving as ARTF’s executive director, he’s also acting vice president for Technology Transfer and Commercialization at Auburn University, overseeing the Office of Technology Transfer, which commercializes university-owned intellectual properties. In this role, he’s involved in linking intellectual properties to developing businesses.

Weete says there is a nationwide initiative for universities to strengthen their commercialization efforts, which he’s doing at Auburn Research Park. He’s particularly proud of the work of Business Development Director Doug Warrington in licensing the canine detection technology to iK9 Holding Co., and attracting the osteopathic medical school.

CEO Eileen Walker, of the Association of University Research Parks (AURP) in Tucson, Ariz., notes that by bringing academia, industry and government together, university research parks aren’t merely fostering entrepreneurism for its own sake, but are instead driven by the belief that intellectual property should transition into the marketplace.

“Managing the challenges associated with an active discovery and commercialization process is an exciting part of running a research park, ” Walker says, “since new discoveries that can be very helpful to society and that can create broad economic prosperity are often created.”

Walker says research parks matter in today’s global economy because innovation is still a local phenomenon. The more globally integrated the world economy becomes, the more local research and development expertise, entrepreneurial culture, workforce skills and manufacturing competencies matter for economic success.

Universities are expanding their traditional economic development role beyond conducting research and providing education, Walker adds. They now partner with government and industry to promote innovation and enable the rapid transmission of ideas through a “community of innovation” that university research parks provide.

Along with a new building to increase the space for incubator tenants, future plans for the Auburn park call for increasing its mixed-used capabilities while continuing to foster high-technology companies, university research facilities, business support centers, technology transfer capabilities and supporting business firms. Future amenities include a hotel and restaurant to encourage interaction among park tenants, university faculty and students and local entrepreneurs.

The master plan accommodates up to 12 buildings totaling 600, 000 square feet of office and laboratory space. The park is being developed in two phases, with Phase 1 providing sites for five to six buildings. Several real estate options are available to meet the needs of startups to well-established corporations looking to house primary or satellite offices.

“We envisioned from the beginning that the collaborative effort between Auburn University and the city of Auburn to develop the research park would ultimately bring high-paying jobs in many disciplines within the city of Auburn, ” says Auburn Mayor Bill Ham.

“That has proven to be the case, ” says Ham. “Now, with the new medical school locating in the park, the future of the Auburn Research Park has limitless possibilities.”

Jessica Armstrong is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Auburn.

text by Jessica Armstrong • photos by Art Meripol

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