Retired banker Kelly King is leading a public-private effort to boost commercialization of university research across North Carolina, winning initial support from key lawmakers and Gov. Roy Cooper. A House bill seeks $50 million in state funding, which could lead to a flood of future investment for the project over the next decade.
The money would go to NCInnovation Inc., which contends that the state’s tech-transfer efforts are falling behind peers across the nation. “RTP isn’t the end,” its pitch book says, referring to the world-famous business park in Durham and Wake counties. “It’s just the beginning.”
“Innovation defines North Carolina’s past, from our research universities to RTP,” says King, the retired BB&T/Truist CEO who chairs NCInnovation’s board. “But if we’re to compete and win in the future, then what we’ve built so far must be only the beginning.
King and other project leaders started conceiving NCInnovation in 2018. Since 2021, the group has undertaken market research, formed a board and raised $20 million from 11 banks, Duke Energy, Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina and other businesses including Capitol Broadcasting, Flow Automotive and Martin Marietta.
Bennet Waters, a former professor in UNC Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health and global security consultant, serves as CEO. The chief strategy officer is Jeff Sural, who led the state’s broadband initiative in the N.C. Department of Information Technology from 2015-2021.
The next phase of the initiative would be to advocate for “at least a $250 million annual public commitment over a minimum of 10 years, or $2.5 billion total, supplemented with private resources” to build on existing strengths in agricultural technology, biohealth, defense innovation, power electronics and cloud computing. It would be a massive expansion by state government.
The group is working on potential hubs and is in talks with leaders of four universities — UNC Charlotte, East Carolina, N.C. A&T and Western Carolina — and the UNC System.
NCInnovation notes that Duke, UNC Chapel Hill and N.C. State account for almost 87% of the state’s academic R&D effort. With other regions left out, North Carolina has “some of the poorest economic mobility in the country,” and half its counties lost population between 2010 and 2020.
NCInnovation envisions a broader set of regional hubs that can link researchers throughout the state with mentors and funding needed to start and sustain new businesses. There’s also a need for more venture capital, and access to experienced executives who can help “infuse real-world business acumen into university research commercialization efforts.”
King leads a six-member board that would expand to 36 members, half from the private sector and half from the public sector. Other members are real-estate developer Kirk Bradley of Chapel Hill; retired Wells Fargo banker Stan Kelly of Winston-Salem; former Waste Industries CEO Ven Poole of Raleigh; biotech executive Neal Fowler of Raleigh and Kelly Fuller, who previously led the NC Chamber Foundation.
King, who lived in a rural Wake County home without electric service early in his life, was part of a management team that built what became the seventh-largest U.S. bank after the BB&T merger with Atlanta-based SunTrust Banks in 2019.
State lawmakers are pressing NCInnovation leaders for more details on the group’s plan, including a comparison with more traditional approaches led by individual universities. ■