1998: The seed for Office of Research Partnerships (formerly the Charlotte Research Institute) was planted in early 1998 when the Charlotte Chamber retained ICF Kaiser’s Economic Strategy Group to talk with business and civic leaders to define issues and initiatives critical to the region’s future. A key identified initiative was the need for the Charlotte region to build a better research and technology infrastructure, which included the acceleration of UNC Charlotte’s development as a top-tier research university. To achieve this, it was proposed that the University create a dedicated public/private research institute on campus to complement and stimulate the economic growth of the region.
1999: The University engaged McKinsey & Company pro bono to study research and technology infrastructure acceleration in the region. The McKinsey report concluded that “to be essential to the long-term vitality of the region and state that Charlotte move immediately to expand its research and technology infrastructure and foster high tech business development”. The report recommended that UNC Charlotte establish an institute that would simultaneously accelerate its development as a research university and stimulate entrepreneurship and economic growth in the Charlotte region. It further recommended that the university carefully select focused research areas with the greatest potential for success. These early recommendations suggested a private/public research institute similar in structure to that of the Georgia Tech Research Institute and Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, where researchers are employed directly by the Institute. That proposed model evolved into a hybrid research center approach using a targeted small number of existing interdisciplinary UNC Charlotte research clusters of emerging prominence to fuel the Institute. The earliest vision for a UNC Charlotte research campus included: 1) enhanced research facilities; 2) upgraded technology transfer capabilities; 3) seed research funding; 4) nationally recognized researchers; and 5) the ability to attract commercial/industry collaborators and create a start-up friendly campus environment.
2000: The North Carolina legislative action, known as the Millennial Act, provided the opportunity for each UNC system campus to create a research campus similar to the NCSU Centennial Campus and be exempt from the provisions of the Umstead Act. A top-level steering committee of McKinsey consultants and UNC Charlotte faculty and administrators, with strong advocacy from Chancellor Jim Woodward, continued work on what was called the “Millennial Campus Project”. The Millennial Campus designation, as provided by NC legislation, has allowed UNC Charlotte to efficiently engage with partner companies. Under this designation, partner companies are able to contract for use of university research capabilities and/or facilities on the Millennial Campus, contract for sole-use space, and construct and manage privately owned buildings. A 2000 UNC Charlotte research campus presentation was made to its Board of Trustees during which the “Millennial Campus Concept” components were outlined: 1) create intellectual capital through technology research with relevance to the regional economy; 2) leverage UNC Charlotte’s unique role in attracting and developing talent for the region; 3) develop research space “without boundaries”; 4) give priority to strategically focused research based on clearly identified research goals and grounded by effectively resourced programs; 5) build on interdisciplinary strengths; and 6) program development based on new economy models. This study and Board presentation advocated for the creation of the Charlotte Institute for Technology Innovation (now the Office of Research Partnerships), a recommendation that was enacted in December 2000.
2001: The newly named Charlotte Institute for Technology Innovation (CITI), or Charlotte Institute for short, established two initial central research focus areas – Optoelectronics and Precision Metrology/Intelligent Manufacturing – with eBusiness Technology added as a third focus area shortly thereafter. Potential affiliations with Urban Studies, Biotechnology, and the Ben Craig Center were also explored during these early studies. At its first meeting in March 2001, the CITI Board noted that a previously dormant 501c3 corporation, known as the University Research Corporation, was reestablished as the Charlotte Institute for Technology Innovation with all updated bylaws and governance requirements.
2002: In February, a $10M endowment pledge was made by Duke Energy – the largest gift made by the Duke Energy Foundation to UNC Charlotte to date. This “Duke Endowment” was to “serve as a catalyst for regional growth in high tech industry”. Additionally, the university received $576K to fund the UNC Charlotte Duke Energy Distinguished Professor of Engineering and Science and a $1M funding pledge by Wachovia. These early gifts continue to fund supported research and economic development initiatives.
2003: Discussed at that first Board meeting in 2001 were concerns about brand confusion specific to the CITI acronym (with Citigroup), leading to a name change to the Charlotte Research Institute (CRI) in 2003. The 2003 CRI vision stated that it would “enhance the technology infrastructure of the Charlotte region by facilitating the development of intellectual capital through global collaboration with industry, academia, and government to create a top-tier interdisciplinary technology research community.” In that same year its stated mission was to “facilitate the development of applied technology by: 1) pursuing strategically planned and focused interdisciplinary research programs in collaboration with industry, academic, and government sectors that will generate world recognized accomplishments; and 2) advancing the development of human and intellectual capital by attracting and leveraging expertise and resources to enhance the research, academic, and technology foundations of the region.”
2006: In March, the Charlotte Research Institute moved into its new home in Grigg Hall on what became known as the CRI Campus of UNC Charlotte. Each of the earliest identified CRI research foci found homes in new state-of-the-art facilities as well, including eBusiness Technology (Woodward), Optoelectronics and Optical Science (Grigg), and Precision Metrology (Duke).
2008: Key research center affiliations had been expanded to eight including Bioinformatics, Biomedical Engineering, Visualization, Information Security, and Motorsports. Also at that time, the new Kannapolis NC Research Campus office, the Ben Craig Center, and a Director of Neuro-Life Sciences Partnerships reported to CRI Executive Director Wilhelm.
2009: The CRI strategic plan outlined three phases of growth: 1) embryonic and organic growth; 2) PORTAL industry-university partnership; and 3) innovation ecosystem.
2010: In December, the CRI Board of Directors approved the dissolution of the Institute’s 501c3 non-profit corporation. Shortly thereafter, the Charlotte Research Institute was merged with the university’s Research and Federal Relations Office to form an administrative unit called Research and Economic Development (R&ED) under the direction of newly appointed Vice Chancellor for R&ED and CRI Executive Director Bob Wilhelm. The Ben Craig Center, rebranded as Ventureprise, Inc., and the Charlotte Small Business and Technology Development Center (SBTDC) were included in this new R&ED unit.
For over 15 years, our office has served as the University’s portal for industry-government-university partnerships. It continues to generate and oversee industry-government-university space licensing at UNC Charlotte. What started as a cadre of about a half-dozen on-site business partners has grown to over 30 partner companies residing in a portion of the approximately 120,000 sq. ft. of allocated space specifically designated for industry and government partnership as well as entrepreneurial support that includes engagement with faculty researchers seeking to commercialize their IP.
The Millennial Campus experienced over a decade of almost non-stop new research and academic building construction between 2002 and 2020 that included Grigg, Duke, Motorsports Research, Bioinformatics, and EPIC.
2012: UNC Charlotte’s commitment to industry-government-university partnership was greatly expanded with the construction of the nearly 100,000 sq. ft. Partnership, Outreach and Research to Accelerate Learning (PORTAL) building which began construction in 2012 and opened in February 2014.
2019: In August, after careful consideration, it was decided to retire the CRI brand and model. The Charlotte Research Institute (CRI) was established over 15 years ago with a mission to transform and accelerate research at UNC Charlotte. However, like most organizations, over time CRI’s role within R&ED and the broader campus research enterprise evolved. The capabilities and capacity of the unit were reimagined and Rick Tankersley, Vice Chancellor for Research and Economic Development, rebranded this unit as the Office of Research Partnerships (ORP). ORP mission states: “ORP serves as UNC Charlotte’s central portal for the creation of collaborative scholarship and research relationships with large and medium-sized corporations, small businesses and start-ups, non-profit organizations, and the full spectrum of government agencies. We work with allies at the local, regional, and state level to help generate new economic development investments. We maximize partnerships, create research teams, and generate results.” Its value proposition states: “A partnership with UNC Charlotte gives your business a distinct advantage: seamless connections with a fast-growing tier-one research university. Connections such as a co-location on our campus and direct access to our students, faculty and our specialized equipment takes your R&D efforts to the next level.”