By Rhonda Bodfield
Helping Drive the Innovation Economy
Running a science and technology research park is typically not the stuff of childhood dreams.
There isn’t a defined list of courses to check off that would prepare someone to serve this highly specialized niche in the innovation economy.
For some, living with that kind of creativity, uncertainty and change might be daunting. For Carol Stewart, the new leader of Tech Parks Arizona, it’s exhilarating.
“Most of us are dropped into positions that nobody else really understands except for the other 200 people in North America who do what you do,” said Stewart, who assumed her new role in mid-December as associate VP for Tech Parks Arizona. “It’s a very small sandbox.”
Stewart knows research parks, with expertise going back decades. She launched the David Johnston Research + Technology Park at the University of Waterloo outside of Ontario, Canada, and over the ensuing 13 years took it from a cornfield to 1 million square feet of innovation space. Most recently, Stewart served as CEO of the Association of University Research Parks, which supports 200 university-related research parks worldwide.
Stewart was familiar with Tech Parks Arizona and had worked for decades with its founding leader, Bruce Wright, who retired last year. She was enticed by the expansion to be done at the UA Tech Park at Rita Road – celebrating the park’s 25th anniversary, elevate the business incubator and growing the park’s amenities, such as a fitness center, for the 6,000 knowledge workers on site.
But the hook? The opportunity to develop the UA Tech Park at The Bridges.
“It’s an opportunity to take all those lessons learned in Waterloo – What works? What doesn’t? It’s truly an exciting adventure,” she said.
The two parks will undoubtedly be very different properties.
The Rita Road park has been a draw for companies seeking secure sites some distance from dense areas – smart vehicles, defense, solar farms. The Bridges, on the other hand, by sheer proximity to the University of Arizona, will be the commercialization hub of the university – an incubator that will be a brew of students, startups and established companies. The goal is to break ground within a year.
The timing was also hard to resist, with the opportunity to align the parks with UA President Robert Robbins’ strategic plan, drawing heavily from the playing ground of tech companies – the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Spend any time with Stewart, and you get the sense she thrives on adventure, with seemingly boundless energy throughout a typical day spanning 12-15 hours.
“I’ve made a commitment to myself that I have to do work I am passionate about, because I give 200 percent,” Stewart said. “This work makes that easy. It’s an addiction and there’s no job like it.”
On one hand, she said, university research park leaders have the power of the institution behind them – the brand, the history, the networks. On the other hand, “Tech is fast-paced. It changes and pivots,” she said. “Your days fly by because you’re doing 50 things at once that are different from the 50 things you did the day before.”
She’s also driven by the transformative power she’s witnessed, such as helping bring Google into the Waterloo Park. Starting with the acquisition of three techies who had no intention to move to Silicon Valley, the company is now well on its way to employing 1,000 engineers in the region.
Stewart came to her career with a foundation in marketing and business development, knowing little about real estate, but adept at managing expectations and building relationships. She’s already fielded calls from her Canadian network, which sees Arizona as a gateway to the United States and Mexico.
“For every new job that comes in, there’s a multiplier effect – from new construction jobs and new homes to the need for additional business services,” she said. “When you have a mass of startups, when you give students reasons to stay in Tucson and to invest in Tucson, the spinoff effect becomes huge.”
Stewart will rely heavily on tapping established entrepreneurs to mentor growing companies. She’s been impressed with the level of engagement from local business leaders already – some of whom sat in on her interview to make sure the right leadership was coming in.
“We have a really good start, but we can certainly build on where we are and develop more opportunities to mentor these companies. It takes a village to raise a startup,” she said.
When she’s not working, you may find her perfecting her golf game around Tucson, since she only played four months of the year in Canada. She’s also an avid volleyball player, joking that it’s appropriate she plays the role of setter. “I like to tee other people up for success.”