NC State Presses For $180M Plant Sciences Plan with Ag Industry

NC State Presses For $180M Plant Sciences Plan with Ag Industry

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how we do plant science internally and finding new ways to partner and leverage these companies that are nearby.

X: Why does the university need a new facility to accomplish this?

SL: We have a number of buildings that house plant scientists. The newest one is [from the] ’60s. We’re excruciatingly outdated, to the point that people comment that it’s hard for us to do research. We’ve needed new facilities for a long time, but we’re not going to do what was done in the past. Typically we would build a building designed for one or two departments and house those folks in there, siloed. The plant sciences building we’re envisioning is an interdisciplinary building designed to take the right blend of people from all of our departments and disciplines, mix them with corporate and government folks, to create a fluid community to attack and go after big issues in plant sciences and agriculture.

X: This fluid model, is this where academia is moving?

SL: Yes. We’re kind of the tip of the spear. This is cathartic, but it’s also a major new way of thinking. Faculty in universities are usually very traditional, hierarchical, siloed. It’s great for doing cottage industry science, small science. One graduate student, one post doc, one gene. But it’s not good for doing systems science. The companies have been doing this for years. We really want to do a systems approach to plant sciences, not just have a plant pathologist but have economists, and physicists, and an application engineer, all working on these big global problems, like yield or drought.

X: Is there a particular model you’re looking at for this approach?

SL: There’s a number of models. Some work well, some are failures. The companies seem to do it better because they’re structured differently. Faculty are a little bit more independent operators. They get their own money, we don’t really tell them what to do, like you can in a company. We looked at Bio-X out at Stanford. They built a beautiful new building and put faculty in there. But that sort of failed; the faculty didn’t really move out when the projects were over with. We’ve looked at the nanotechnology science group at MIT. That was originally designed as a static model. They’ve done great things but it’s a static model. There’s a lot of energy for five, six, seven years. And now those collisions, those interactions, have sort of worn out.

One model that we’re definitely looking at is Discovery Park at Purdue. Purdue is a land grant [university] so ethos-wise and structure-wise, it’s like us. They have this mixed model where they put people in a building. They have a strong director, who has the authority to move people in and out. The secret there is that when they put people into the building, they don’t vacate their old space. What happens is, nature fills a vacuum. Space is a big issue in universities. If you move someone into the new building for five years you can’t repatriate them back to their old space. We have to find models to get people to move into a building and get the right ones to move back when their contribution to the project is over with.

X: Would this initiative duplicate anything industry is doing? How would this work with industry?

SL: Industry is very interested in doing this with us. They have a lot of reasons to partner with us. But as far as research goes, we’re going to work in that sweet spot called precompetitive research. Certainly industry has certain aspects of their portfolio that they’re keeping very close to the vest. We’ll probably not work on those too much, but work on bigger, global problems that are precompetitive. They could even work on things that are closer to their wheelhouse in our building, if they choose. But they really want to work with university scientists and graduate students, because they want to build the pipeline of people that will eventually become their employees.

X: What kind of conversations have you had with industry, and to what extent is industry shaping this initiative?

SL: We’ve had lots of conversations with them at pretty high levels. They’re very frank and they let us know what they’d like to see. Each company has a slightly different vision. If you look at how these companies are working, they’re all partnering with key universities in very large strategic partnerships. They’d love to partner with us, since we’re local. They acquire the “R” in R&D by acquiring small startup companies. They really want this partnership and this initiative to be an engine for creating … Next Page »

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