In 2011, the University of Nebraska began construction on the former Nebraska State Fairgrounds of a forward-looking initiative called Innovation Campus. The project is a sound idea for NU and for Nebraska overall.
Innovation Campus is gradually adding to its facilities, with the long-term aim of creating a “research campus” where private companies and government agencies pursue cutting-edge research work and entrepreneurial activity in collaboration with NU faculty and students.
Innovation Campus will appropriately specialize in academic niches where NU has earned national and international respect: food and plant science, water studies, alternate energy.
The project was launched using a mix of $25 million in public funds and more than $100 million in private contributions.
However, Innovation Campus has run into complications.
As reporting by The World-Herald’s Martha Stoddard detailed, some businesses have voiced the need to make decisions on possible investment more quickly than NU can make buildings available. Offering competitive rents is challenging. The U.S. Department of Agriculture initially signaled it would build a major research center on Innovation Campus, but funding dried up.
Problematical, too, is that with term limits, the Nebraska Legislature now has only one lawmaker, Sen. Ernie Chambers, who was in office when Innovation Campus first was approved in 2008.
So, when NU came forward this year with major funding requests for Innovation Campus ($25 million to set up a revolving fund for future construction, and $6 million over two years to help with business recruitment and rental costs), lawmakers were hesitant. Their wariness was compounded by NU’s failure to present and explain a clear business plan for Innovation Campus.
The Legislature’s Appropriations Committee balked at the funding requests, while proposing a sound idea for moving things forward. The committee voted for a study to bring together key information about Innovation Campus finances, management, planning and business recruitment.
Lawmakers say that if NU makes a convincing case that its plans can bring about practical, achievable results, then it would make sense for the state to consider additional funding.
The World-Herald asked Eileen Walker, CEO of the Association of University Research Parks, about the general circumstances when a university research park is starting up. The situation at Innovation Campus “is very typical” of the early years of such facilities, she said.
“The ideas research parks use to enable job creation and economic development are complicated and complex, so they do take time,” Walker said. Once a park’s infrastructure is in place, “it can take anywhere from five to 10 to 15 years before they really start realizing the vision.”
It once was common for private-sector companies for do all their cutting-edge scientific research in-house, but “that has completely changed,” she added. Now, companies “work closely with universities and with small startup companies” in what’s called “open innovation.”
Research parks are proving to be important “economic drivers” in boosting a state’s ability to create well-paying jobs, Walker said.
Innovation Campus is seeing progress on several fronts. The 65,000-square-foot Innovation Commons building is in operation with offices and conference space. This summer, the campus will open a 178,000-square-foot Food Innovation Center, where scientists with Omaha-based ConAgra Foods will use cutting-edge laboratory and research facilities. UNL’s food science faculty is relocating from East Campus.
Also to open this year is the Greenhouse Innovation Center. At 45,000 square feet initially, it will have research capabilities available in few other comparable facilities. Researchers will identify and study food crops that display beneficial characteristics such as drought tolerance.
Innovation Campus is gearing up the Nebraska Innovation Studio to full capacity, bringing together interdisciplinary teams and a variety of equipment to do customized manufacturing projects.
Innovation Campus is making progress, but lawmakers are right to ask for greater detail and a clear business plan. NU leaders need to follow up energetically so this promising university initiative can move forward.