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January 2006
Collaboration, Research and Innovation
By Susanne Deitzel

While political posts may be the most visible of Charlotte leadership, there is a cadre of leaders in the academic, scientific and business world that wield considerable leverage over the direction in which the city is headed. And, despite their diversity and individual agendas, they all agree on one thing: building and nurturing a significant research university is an absolute must in terms of keeping the region healthy.

Thank goodness for this consensus, for it appears that Charlotte and the surrounding region has caught the science and technology bug, and there are outcroppings of activity at every point in the regional compass.

Perhaps nowhere is the interest more visible than north Highway 29, where UNC Charlotte’s Charlotte Research Institute (CRI) campus is now perched. Formidable new buildings bring an air of prestige and solemnity, and one can almost hear in passing its new floors being spattered with eager student footsteps. But these buildings are more than just classrooms; they are collaborative environments for the intersection of science and commerce.

 

Coming to the Fore

The University’s extensive commitment to business partnerships was planted in the considerable vision of former Chancellor James Woodward, which he executed gracefully for sixteen years. During that time, significant investments were made toward science and technology that were eventually manifested in the creation of CRI. Current Chancellor Philip Dubois has chosen Dr. Robert Wilhelm as the Institute’s new executive director and guardian of the growth of the Institute. According to a substantial number of people, the assignment has been left in very capable hands.

Wilhelm follows in the footsteps of Deborah Clayton, who stepped down from the position in early 2005. The two leaders share weighty experience in research, high profile laboratories and technology transfer. However, where some characterized Clayton as a dynamic and effective marketer, Wilhelm is an eloquent scientist and communicator who seeks to keep his organization and partners moving forward in synchronization.

Comments Chancellor Dubois, “I have been impressed with Bob’s ability to bridge the communication gap that often separates the private sector from the academy. Since CRI is the portal through which businesses seek research support from the University, Bob is the perfect person to help forge mutually beneficial relationships.”

Wilhelm assumed the position in an interim capacity in June of 2005 before he was appointed for a three-year term in late November 2005. Prior to the directorship of CRI, Wilhelm served as associate director of the Center for Precision Metrology, now one of the four major centers of CRI. Now a professor of Mechanical Engineering, he has been on the faculty at UNC Charlotte since 1993. He came to Charlotte from the prestigious Rockwell Science labs in Palo Alto, California, where he had worked for a 100-year old engineering company, Cincinnati Milacron, and co-founded a high tech manufacturing company called OpSource in 2001.

As to his qualifications for the position, Wilhelm is conspicuously humble. He says, “More than anything, I have a strong interest and background in engineering and science, academics and industrial settings. Since the aim of the Institute is to attract people and research groups interested in applied research, the fit has been quite good.”

Wilhelm says the decision to move to Charlotte was a challenging one. “I was offered two positions, one at the University of Washington in Seattle, which was familiar and comfortable, and the other in Charlotte, which seemed more uncertain. But I chose the path where I could grow the most, and am glad I did.”

In fact, the Charlotte Research Institute appears to personify growth. Originally inspired by a 1998 ICF Kaiser Study that recommended accelerating the University’s standing in research to fuel economic development, and a pro-bono study by McKinsey and Company which corroborated those findings, the potential applications of CRI continue to expand. Created to develop technology-based academic and business partnerships culminating in research to outfit the region with intellectual capital and growth, the Institute originally included three centers: eBusiness, Optoelectronics and Optical Communications and Precision Metrology. Last year, the state of North Carolina also approved funding for a building for Bioinformatics, which holds promise for the emerging biotechnology leanings of the region.

 

Maturing Mission

Wilhelm says, “The mission of CRI is to develop university business and technology partnerships within a number of research centers, generating valuable and informative results that can be used for industry. By leveraging the resources of the University we can attract businesses to partner in research. As more national and international companies and more researchers are attracted to the region, the strength of our University grows.”

Wilhelm has four strategic goals to bring CRI’s strength to its full potential. “One, we must grow research activity by working with and developing the Centers, and bringing more resources onto campus. Two, we must develop more presence both in the region and nationally for the work done at CRI. To this end, we are developing marketing collateral and partnering with economic development agencies to explain CRI’s story.”

He continues, “Three, we must increase the infrastructure for research and business collaboration. As a student and professor, I wrote proposals to support my own research. Now, my efforts are focused on proposals to support the needs of the Centers, various colleges, and programs, to draw more funds to build infrastructure on campus.”

CRI houses its technology research in buildings on 100 acres of the UNC Charlotte campus. The CRI campus is a geographically defined part of the University known as the Millennial Campus, a specially designated footprint that allows the University to conduct activities in partnership with the private sector by virtue of state legislation called the Millennial Campus Act.

Explains Wilhelm briefly, “The Millennial Campus Act facilitates effective use of resources for both business and universities, and brings more opportunities to create partnerships.”

Wilhelm’s says his fourth goal is a long-term endeavor to find ways to provide more stable funding for CRI as well as other initiatives on campus. “That will always be a large component of my job, especially as we increase research.” He quips, “That’s just part of the job. Find space; find money. Kind of like breathing.”

As far as funding goes, Wilhelm says he sees CRI on pretty solid footing for the moment. “The 2000 bond initiative allowed us to build significant new building stock that is good for both educational and research purposes. We received more state funding last year for a building for our Bioinformatics program. We have significant state support in terms of salaries and operating budget, not to mention the sizeable endowments we have received from companies such as Duke Energy and Wachovia. All of these provide a steady stream of income to initiate new partnerships and develop new research activity on campus. There is a significant amount of funding in place to make this a successful enterprise. We want to keep it that way.”

He hastens to add, “We have done pretty well so far in terms of buildings, but it’s not so much the bricks and mortar as the people and the results they generate. My focus is first and foremost to support the Centers to make them as productive as they can be to generate more research and more partnerships.”

 

Looking Into the Future

Another concern for some is sharing the nascent technology playing field with the much-hyped North Carolina Research Campus being developed in Kannapolis by Dole Foods billionaire, David Murdock. With Murdock’s shiny new Core Lab competing for top-notch researchers, where does that leave CRI?

Wilhelm appears undisturbed by the question. “While many people have become more aware of the growth in science and biotech as a result of the Kannapolis undertaking, the growth itself has been anticipated for some time. UNC Charlotte has made much studied, very strategic, decisions that will carry the University well through the next twenty years.”

“As far as competition between the two campuses, I don’t think anyone who has significant experience in research communities would characterize it as such. When I worked on the West Coast, I lived and worked in the middle of hundreds of science and technology based companies, and dozens of universities and medical schools. There was a pool of researchers and entrepreneurs that wanted to be there for the community of knowledge, and the flexibility of knowing there were plenty of job opportunities. Our proximity to the Kannapolis campus will be a considerable asset.”

He adds, “The programs CRI and the North Carolina Research Campus are developing will complement and contribute to one another, as well as other research universities. We will continue our efforts in bioinformatics, biomedical engineering systems, exercise genomics and health services research, which should all provide synergy with the nutrition, food genomics and other research in Kannapolis.”

And attracting researchers shouldn’t be a problem. UNC Charlotte, according to Wilhelm, has been in a very advantageous position with regard to hiring talented faculty, particularly those interested in science research. “Right now there are a lot of very talented graduates ready to work, and we are fortunate to be in the position to hire them.”

He says that once faculty candidates experience the campus, see the caliber of people on the faculty, the facilities, the commitment of the administration, and the support of the state and the region, a lot of times they want to stay. “Charlotte is growing in terms of the economy, the population, the diversity and the opportunities. All of these together provide for a very strong draw for researchers and businesses both nationally and internationally.”

When asked if perhaps the “business” mission, the economic forces drawing these staffers and business partnerships weren’t perhaps notably stronger at UNC Charlotte than other institutions, Wilhelm gives a measured response.

“I don’t want anyone to think that our major concern isn’t the students. Our focus is to provide accomplished students with the experience that they come to a university for, that they cannot get anywhere else, and to prepare them for their goals.”

He adds, “The effort to engage business partnerships is strong at UNC Charlotte, as it is at many other universities. But we have the benefit of being a young, growing, modern university, which has had the chance to look over the horizon and see what would be best for our future. We don’t have the baggage of some older universities, and we have the benefit of being well-positioned in the here and now.”

Here and now is a pretty good place for Wilhelm. In addition to enjoying and excelling in his new capacity, he says that the administrative support he has received, in addition to the personal interest, support and unfettered access to his board of directors, has made his job run pretty smoothly so far.

Wilhelm concludes, “I am very pleased in terms of the resources I have to work with.”

Chancellor Dubois returns the compliment, “I was vice chancellor for academic affairs at UNC Charlotte when Bob was hired. It has been a pleasure to see the promise he demonstrated as a young faculty member being continued for more than a decade. Leading CRI is a great opportunity at this stage of his career, but it is of tremendous value to UNC Charlotte as we continue to build our research enterprise.”

Susanne Deitzel is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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