Article by:
Morgan P. Abbott*

40 Campbell L. Rev. 569 (2018)


North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park (the Park) is the largest research park in the United States, spanning nearly 7,000 acres, with almost 200 companies and more than 40,000 employees.1  Three esteemed research universities form a triangle around the Park: North Carolina State University in Raleigh, the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, and Duke University in Durham.  The non-profit Research Triangle Foundation owns and develops the Park.  Research parks across the globe have attempted to duplicate the Research Triangle Park model by constructing a campus-like environment for companies near research universities,2 but few have achieved the size and scale of the Park, and few boast vast acreage between three research universities.  Understanding the success of Research Triangle Park, or recreating it elsewhere, requires an understanding of the Park’s beginnings.

Founders originally envisioned the Park as a private, profit-seeking venture.  North Carolina’s business elite spearheaded the project, using universities as magnets to attract new businesses, awaken the state’s sleeping economy, and halt the flight of North Carolina’s university-educated citizens out of state.  However, as the idea grew, hesitation by the universities, reservations concerning a display of favoritism by the government, and difficulty recruiting investors and relocating companies sparked a transition of the Park to a non-profit enterprise.  This gradual transition began under the leadership of Professor George Simpson, director of the early Research Triangle efforts, and ended with Archie Davis officially incorporating the Park as a non-profit venture and soliciting donations, rather than investments, to finance the Park.  Today’s Research Triangle Park would not have been possible without the foresight of the Park’s founding leadership to convert the Park to a non-profit enterprise.

This Article explores the providential creation and early growth of Research Triangle Park, stemming from the hard work and collaboration of government, universities, and business leaders; the attraction of three research universities; and a bit of luck.3  The Park’s early leadership capitalized on and promoted existing institutions.  The three universities fostered economic and industrial growth to reverse the brain drain caused by university graduates leaving the state to pursue careers elsewhere.  The Triangle’s “unique assortment of possums, pine trees and Ph.D.’s”4 provided a work environment that differed from other major urban industrial centers, which businesses, seeking to improve employee quality of life, found attractive.  Despite boasting one of the nation’s poorest primary and secondary education systems and lowest wage structures, early Research Triangle leadership believed that North Carolina could, and would, become a leader in technology, education, and the sciences through the development of its research park.5

By detailing the Park’s history, this Article emphasizes the impact of the Park’s early transition from a for-profit venture to a non-profit, public-oriented enterprise.  Park leadership realized structuring the Park as a private enterprise created tension between the universities and private sector, which jeopardized university support and involvement.  Additionally, leadership struggled to identify willing investors, as many perceived risk of realizing no return on investment due to North Carolina’s lagging economy and lack of research and development infrastructure.  Finally, although numerous government officials supported the idea of the Park, the government hesitated to fund necessary infrastructure, fearing public perception of ethical violations, government promotion of individual interests, or corruption.

Park leadership soon recognized that incorporating as a non-profit could minimize these tensions.  The idea of an investment in North Carolina’s academic and economic future received a positive response from investors and the public.  The government funded roads and other infrastructure key to the Park’s operational success.  Additionally, the lack of individual competition or conflicts of interest fostered close collaboration among business, government, and educational institutions toward a common goal of strengthening North Carolina’s economic and scientific development.

Part I of this Article details the beginnings of the Research Triangle Park, discussing the concept, early leadership, and government involvement.  Part II traces the Park’s transition from a private, profit-seeking enterprise to a public, service-oriented non-profit.  Part III examines how the transition allowed the Park’s leadership to establish a research institute, opening the door for increased government support in funding and planning the Park.  Additionally, Part III describes how the transition from private to non-profit impacted the quest to convince companies to relocate to Research Triangle Park.  Finally, the Article argues that the timing, economic situation, universities, and support base of the early endeavor render the Research Triangle Park model difficult to replicate.  Nonetheless, modeling similar ventures initially as non-profit enterprises could avoid the roadblocks faced by Park leadership in its early development.

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