Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Analyzing the NCInnovation board nominations

There’s a lot of interesting stuff taking place in the late-session appointments bill the Senate rolled out Tuesday to fill positions created recently. I had a go in Wednesday morning’s newsletter at the changes to the State Board of Transportation. It’s time to address another set: The NCInnovation board.

Quick refresher: NCInnovation Inc. is the nonprofit that’s been set up to bolster the commercialization of faculty research at public universities, specifically the ones that aren’t UNC Chapel Hill and N.C. State.

The budget for the fiscal 2023-25 biennium will provide it $500 million, money that’s supposed to become an endowment for its future efforts. But it comes with strings attached, none bigger than a demand that legislators control appointments to a majority of the nonprofit’s 13 member board.

The appointments bill, Senate Bill 761, puts that into operation.

My colleagues at Business North Carolina have already pointed out that one of the selections is former legislator and longtime mover-and-shaker Art Pope, about which more in a minute. But we should take stock of the other picks too.

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger nominated three people (one short of a full boat, as the budget bill gives chamber gets four picks): Ben Teague, Todd Kasper and Canty Alexander.

Teague, from Henderson County, is the vice president for strategic development at Biltmore Farms, and more to the point the former executive director of the Asheville-Buncombe County Economic Development Coalition.

Kasper, from Wake County, is the vice president of global business solutions at IQVIA, a Durham-based analytics provider for the life-sciences industry.

Alexander, from Watauga County, is a recently retired Triad regional vice president for Truist Bank. He’d been with Truist and corporate predecessor BB&T for more than 36 years and as such worked for former Truist and BB&T CEO Kelly King, one of the founders of and driving forces behind NCInnovation.

House Speaker Tim Moore nominated four people, and it’s here we should acknowledge that the House got the appropriation for NCInnovation scaled back during the summer’s budget talks, to less than half the $1.4 billion the Senate proposed. Everyone involved has acknowledged that the House needed selling on the idea.

Moore’s picks start with Beth Friedrich, of Wake County, who’s been the speaker’s economic development policy adviser for almost three years and before that worked in the executive branch under Govs. Pat McCrory and Roy Cooper.

Another pick from Wake County, Blannie Cheng Miller, is a lawyer who was the governor’s adviser on jobs and the economy in the first year of the McCrory administration.

From Lenior County, there’s Jeffery Turner, chief operating officer of Murphy Family Ventures, which handles investments for the family of hog-farming baron and former legislator Wendell Murphy.

And then there’s Pope, chairman of Variety Wholesalers, the Henderson-based corporate parent of the Roses Discount Stores chain, and a financial backer of the John Locke Foundation and other conservative groups. He lives in Wake County.

Pope’s inclusion drew notice from my BNC colleagues because back in September, he co-signed a letter to Moore that among other things said NCInnovation’s “approach does not align with the principles of free enterprise.”

(Interestingly, that letter’s co-signers also included John Allison, King’s former boss and predecessor as CEO of BB&T.)

Couple things to note. First, four of the seven appointees are from Wake County, which isn’t exactly consistent with the idea that NCInnovation is all about bolstering commercialization at regional universities like UNC Charlotte, East Carolina, Western Carolina and N.C. A&T State.

Second, Pope is a bête noire of many on the left, but it’s worth noting that as a member of UNC System Board of Governors, he’s found himself to the left of some of his colleagues.

He was a vocal critic of the legislatively ordered move of the system headquarters from Chapel Hill to Raleigh (which costs the state a budgeted $3.8 million a year for its lease at The Dillon). And just last week, he signaled qualms about the legislature’s decision in this budget to earmark state matches for endowed professorships only for posts in the STEM fields.

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