By Eric Swedlund –
Tech Parks Arizona is leading the University of Arizona’s tech parks into a new era – with plans designed to expand business engagement into areas that reflect the university’s research strengths, help faculty bring innovation to the marketplace, and build research and development facilities for companies employing thousands of high-tech workers.
This year is the 20th anniversary of Tech Parks Arizona, which began in 1994 as the UA Office of Economic Development and included a single park that is known today as the UA Tech Park.
“The UA Tech Park’s first goal was to reach financial self-sufficiency. Thus, our mission and focus were initially to recruit revenue-producing tenants,” said Bruce A. Wright, associate VP for Tech Parks Arizona. His unit is part of Tech Launch Arizona, which focuses on technology commercialization and industry-sponsored research with the goal of moving knowledge and inventions developed by students and faculty into the market.
“Now we are at a point where we can be more strategic in the enterprises, companies and programs we recruit into the park and the types of partnerships we form. The benefit of our success is that we have been able to use our financial resources to expand the UA Tech Park and also acquire land for a new park,” Wright said.
The UA Tech Park, located about 13 miles southeast of the UA campus and managed by Tech Parks Arizona, was purchased in 1994 from IBM. The park helped commercialize UA-developed technologies as part of a broad regional economic development mission. In 2007, the UA also acquired property three miles south of the UA’s main campus – at a location called The Bridges – for a second technology park. Originally conceived as a bioscience park, the focus has since expanded to embrace other technologies. The new park is now called UA Tech Park at The Bridges.
“We are trying to differentiate the parks,” Wright said. “Each will provide faculty, students, companies and employees with a different array of research and development assets, opportunities and benefits.”
Both parks are crucial elements of university strategic planning – including President Ann Weaver Hart’s Never Settle plan and the roadmap developed by Tech Launch Arizona a year ago to transform technology creation and commercialization at the UA.
“There’s been a confluence of opportunity and performance that has been woven into a strategy for the parks,” said David N. Allen, VP of Tech Launch Arizona.
“Within roughly a six-month period, we had major changes and refinement in focus and orientation for where the university is going in its research endeavors, where it’s going to be making its investments for research endeavors, and how TLA and the Tech Parks will work together.”
The maturation of the UA Tech Park itself is a big reason it has been incorporated into a greater vision for how the UA can expand its research commercialization efforts, Allen said.
“It’s been a facility, a program, a network – and it has reached a level that is not seen by many universities. Most universities have to continually pour money into their technology park enterprises,” Allen said.
“Over the past 20 years the UA Tech Park has emerged as a major employment center – a major concentration of technology workforce – and because the park is now in a positive financial situation, we can be confident that as we take some new strides and do things differently, we can indeed take its impact to a higher level.”
History of Research Parks
There are more than 175 university-affiliated research parks in the United States. These parks have played a major role in creating high-tech, high-paying jobs.
IBM originally built the park in southeast Tucson in 1979, a state-of-the-art facility designed for its Storage Systems Division. When the UA purchased the facility, IBM remained as one of two tenants – the other being Raytheon Missile Systems, which located 1,200 employees on-site. Microsoft signed on in 1996 and by the end of the decade, the Tech Park had 17 companies with a $1.5 billion total economic impact. In 2001, the Association of University Research Parks named the UA Tech Park the top university research park in North America.
The quick success was by design.
“I’m a student of research parks and I’ve studied what’s happened in the United States over the last 60 years,” Wright said. “I’ve taken a pretty hard look at top research parks in North America and there have been some generational changes.”
A number of parks sprang up after the success of early leaders like the Stanford Research Park, which was founded in 1951 and became the cornerstone of what is today known as Silicon Valley. North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park was formed in 1959 to capitalize on the strengths of three nearby universities.
Wright characterizes that first generation of university research parks as simply the foundation, with a focus on acquiring land and beginning operations. The second generation of parks hinged on technology transfer, taking particular innovations into the marketplace. The third generation found university research parks reaching outward to build partnerships and relationships with their communities and industry.
“I think we’re now in generation four, which asks, ‘What specifically can research parks offer to this whole process of technological innovation, commerce and development?’” Wright said. “A number of the parks are becoming more focused in terms of what they provide, the business services they offer and the initiatives they pursue.”
Having multiple sites provides distinct advantages in terms of flexibility and choices for businesses navigating a complex environment.
“We came to the conclusion that we had a great advantage with the UA Tech Park with its size and location – but at the same time we needed a park closer to the main campus of the university,” Wright said. “Some companies like the suburban setting and other companies really want their employees in an urban environment. We’re trying to respond to different requirements that different businesses have.”
Alignment with the University’s Strategic Plan
To maximize the effectiveness of Tech Parks Arizona contributions to advancing the UA’s mission, Wright and his team are focusing on a defined set of research strengths.
Those areas include – aerospace, defense and security; water, environmental sciences, agriculture and arid lands; solar and renewable energy; mining technology; and life sciences and biosciences. The UA’s strengths in optics and informatics also are foundational in these areas.
“The idea now is to use those specializations as guideposts to go out and attract technology companies into the region at one of the two parks. Those translate into some powerful industry areas,” Wright said.
By choosing to focus on just research areas that have the biggest advantage for the university, the mission will be clearer and the outcomes will help build critical mass.
“The other part of it is to use the parks as an asset and a tool for our research and educational enterprises in the same areas. The opportunity for faculty to take advantage of doing research projects, doing testing, doing demonstration of their projects at either park is an important part of what we’re trying to do,” Wright said.
To attract companies, Tech Parks Arizona and TLA are putting together a series of “attraction teams” centered on those core strategic areas.
“We’re putting in-house staff together, we’re putting technical and marketing expertise around that particular area, we’re involving key people from the university and we’re bringing in representatives of Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities, Pima County and the Arizona Commerce Authority,” Wright said. “We’re fashioning an attraction team that can reach out and bring companies in and connect them throughout the university and the community and thereby enhance the opportunities for successful recruiting of that company.
“We’re proactively going out and identifying companies – primarily small and midsized technology companies – that are looking for a relationship with the university and an entry point into the marketplace.”
Everything Tech Launch Arizona does – technology transfer, corporate relations, research commercialization, starting new companies – can be aided by Tech Parks Arizona, Allen said.
“We’re trying to align the Tech Park and particularly the Arizona Center for Innovation (Tech Parks Arizona’s business incubator) as an integral part of the services Tech Launch Arizona is providing to the university and the community,” he said. “That is the quintessential role of TLA that we talked about from the very beginning. TLA is more than just the sum of its parts. The parts can interact with each other in a way to present something you would not have otherwise.”
The intermingling and interdependency of different resources, people and skills centered on the university’s knowledge base is crucial in taking innovations to market.
“To be able to put small amounts of resources into proof of concept and be able to do it in environments that are nimble like the UA Tech Park is something that other people in my seat would salivate over,” Allen said.
Two Parks – Dual Potential
The 1,345-acre UA Tech Park now has more than 40 businesses – including six Fortune 500 companies – with nearly 7,000 employees, and contributes $2.4 billion annually to the region’s economy.
The UA Tech Park at The Bridges is 65 vacant acres, with infrastructure in place and, most importantly, no debt to be paid. Initially intended to focus strictly on bioscience, this park’s mission has been expanded to include all technologies.
“The bad news is that the development of The Bridges was slowed by the Great Recession. But the good news is that it’s given us an opportunity to step back and be more reflective and strategic – and align that with what President Hart is doing with the Never Settle plan and with Tech Launch Arizona. It’s a grand opportunity for us,” Wright said.
“David Allen has created a technology innovation and commercialization model that is unique in the United States,” Wright said. “He’s taken the best from other areas and adapted them to the specific context of Tucson and the president’s strategic plan for the university. Tech Parks Arizona is doing the same thing. We’re not replicating a model that’s anywhere else. There are elements of what we’re doing, but it is a unique configuration between these two.”
Less than three miles from campus, at East 36th Street and Kino Parkway, The Bridges will be more urban and dense and offer a closer connection to both the main campus and the Arizona Health Sciences Center.
“The physical form will be different. It won’t have quite the suburban look of the UA Tech Park. It will have more of a vertical look. Some of the difficulties – for example, the distance between main campus and the UA Tech Park – will be solved by a closer option,” Allen said. “It is a different opportunity in the way we see it developing and the kinds of engagement it will have with the university – partly because from the very beginning we’ll build that engagement differently.”
The Bridges’ long-term plan calls for about 4 million square feet of developed office and laboratory space that could support about 18,000 to 20,000 employees onsite, given the planned urban density.
Even before Never Settle, planning for The Bridges was centered on a long-term vision, one the university could guide from the start – a very different beginning scenario than that of the first property at the UA Tech Park.
“With the Tech Park, we were handed the existing infrastructure system IBM built and had to grow it and maintain it,” Wright said. “With The Bridges, we built the infrastructure to exceed the foreseeable research and technology needs of our target companies – because we needed to be ready for whatever the technology world is going to demand from us in the future.”