More space is the biggest hurdle to growing high-tech business in Chapel Hill, UNC officials, residents and entrepreneurs say, but the solution may be several years away.
Natalia Mitin, president of HealthSpan Dx, said the laboratory services company started at UNC but ended up in Research Triangle Park because larger office and especially lab space weren’t available in Chapel Hill. Their work requires a lot of space, even for just a few employees, she said.
“If you imagine a lab in the form of a horseshoe: The sample gets received on this end and travels through the lab, and you can never come back. You have to have a space that is big enough to lay out personnel in this linear path,” she said.
Parking was another problem, she told a few dozen people gathered Thursday for a tech business panel hosted by the Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town, or CHALT. Mitin and other panelists highlighted the challenges to keeping UNC spinoffs local and attracting investors, and the benefit of proximity to campus and its resources.
That was why his biotech company remained in Chapel Hill, said Jude Samulski, co-founder of NanoCor Therapeutics and director of the UNC Gene Therapy Center. But the medical community’s growing demand and NanoCor’s expansion to a global market is forcing them now to look to RTP.
“We spun out of UNC and ... are trying to stay as close as possible to campus, because what you need access to is the people and time,” Samulski said.
The story is the same for many businesses founded by UNC students and faculty, said Michelle Bolas, associate director for Innovate Carolina, operating out of the UNC Vice Chancellor for Innovation and Entrepreneurship’s office.
The university had a role in the founding of 346 startups over the last four decades, including 293 that are still active, Bolas said. Roughly 80 percent are located in North Carolina. A 2014 analysis found the result was $5.5 billion in startup funding, $6.1 billion in revenues and 33,958 jobs, she said.
Unlike at Duke and N.C. State universities, however, about 84 percent of UNC patents are in the life sciences, she said, which involves more regulatory hurdles, a longer timeline and a higher cost in getting to market.
UNC is crafting a campus master plan with the goal of better support, labs and venture spaces to maximize student and faculty efforts, Bolas said. A study found startups occupy roughly 26,000 square feet on campus and need another 136,000 square feet to incubate and grow. More space could be needed for working with potential industry partners, she said.
“We need the kinds of spaces that will attract the volume of activity that is attractive for those organizations to look at putting satellite offices in proximity to our campus,” she said.
The strategy starts with a downtown innovation district for lab, startup and support spaces. The Launch Chapel Hill venture lab and co-working space on West Rosemary Street, for instance, has 18 resident teams and is expecting 35 later this year, she said. The partnership between UNC, the town and Orange County is looking at a potential expansion, she said.
Other town-gown partnerships and private redevelopment could be three to five years into the future, Bolas said, while expanding space on UNC’s Main Campus is a longer-term goal. It’s too early to consider how approved mixed use projects, such as Obey Creek, could meet some needs, she said.
Some existing UNC offices could consolidate into the new Carolina Square development on West Franklin Street, however, leaving space for growing Launch startups, she and Jim Kitchen said. Kitchen, who was instrumental in opening Launch and 1789 Venture Lab, said UNC’s conversation about how to keep young businesses is encouraging.
“We do still have some empty office space in Chapel Hill. It saddens me to hear some of these companies moving out when we do have vacancies, and I think we just need to do a better job in connecting the dots there,” he said. But “we need a couple hundred thousand square feet, and I’d like to see it be in downtown Chapel Hill, at multiple sites, so that we can really do something meaningful with 1789 and Launch and retain these ventures.”