Ten things to help promote a successful tech center

I was fortunate enough to cover the annual convention of the International Association of Science Parks, held this year in Raleigh, N.C. The group is composed of a variety of people who operate industrial and technology “parks” like the granddaddy of them all, Research Triangle Park, which is located nearby.

I have been to RTP many times, mostly to visit IBM, which is the huge anchor tenant there and has 10,000 or so employees working there. Over the years this IBM facility has gone through many iterations – it was a key player in the early days of the PC, but that business was sold to Lenovo years ago.

What I took away from my meetings was a set of ten principles for people who want to establish their own future successful tech centers.

  1. Have a good source of university talent nearby. What made RTP work was its proximity to three great universities (hence the “triangle” in the name). Other science parks have figured this out but it is more than just being close by: you have to engage academia in interesting ways, and exploit cross-discipline work. One of the best examples of that is RTI International, a large mostly government-sponsored institution that is in RTP and has hundreds of research scientists that work jointly with the academics. “There is no one dominant industry here in RTP unlike Silicon Valley, and we have found that innovation occurs at the boundaries of various disciplines,” said one RTI manager to me.
  2. The ideal situation is to cross-pollinate ideas between entrepreneurs, academics, government, and established industry. At a science park in Berlin, they worked with two different universities, one that specialized in the arts and one in the sciences, to create joint research projects and to enhance each other’s graduate programs.
  3. Build community however you can. At RTP, there are softball leagues, golf games, bike paths, and various other events to try to get communities started and nurtured.
  4. Build in your legacy for the next generation of leaders. Some of the companies at RTP have been there close to 50 years. “We endure because we had the longer-term vision and knew that as the older generation retires or ages out, we needed new faces. We realized that no one group was going to get to finish RTP,” says Rick Weddle, the CEO of RTP. “We needed to reach consensus around a grand scheme and create a trans-generational leadership legacy to see this through.”
  5. You need a mix of big and small companies. Just like the best shopping malls, you want both big and small ventures to play off each other’s skills and needs. RTP has both, including three incubators that can handle the earliest of startups. “More jobs have come out of the smaller firms than out of the big companies put together,” said RTP’s Weddle. Since the 1970s, more than 1,500 RTP-grown startups have been created. That’s a lot of new jobs coming from someplace that was a bunch of “pig farms and tobacco fields” back in the 1950s, as one person put it. 
  6. Eat your own dog food. In Brazil, a science park that was specializing in experimental construction technologies built a flexible building that demonstrated many of these technologies and was both a showroom and a proving ground for what they were trying to accomplish. I saw the same thing at TechColumbus where you could reconfigure office space by moving walls and other modules.
  7. Test, and retest and don’t be afraid to fail. The best parks are the result of serendipitous experiments, unplanned fortuitous circumstances, and other oddities. You can’t plan everything so try a lot of different approaches.
  8. Mixed use is essential. If you aren’t going to be in a center city, figure out what it will take to keep people near where they work. One of the things that RTP didn’t get right was nearby residential use, something that they are now building. People want to live near where they work. The ultimate example of this is at SAS, which isn’t inside RTP but nearby in its own office-park like setting. The CEO actually lives on campus. Too bad they didn’t think about housing for the rest of their staff.
  9. Have a liberal telecommuting policy in place early. At IBM in Raleigh nearly 40% of its staff telecommutes. They did this for a number of reasons, but it just makes good sense. And while it is harder for managers to cope with people when they aren’t there, if you are going to attract the best and brightest people, they don’t have to show up at their desk every day to get their jobs done.
  10. Have a mentoring plan in place early on. You want to exploit the learning and tutoring that happens in these highly intellectual environments. Hold seminars, encourage staffers to do community outreach, and in general get people talking to each other.

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