RTP: A History of Looking to the Future

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The Frontier building on the RTP campus is dog friendly. Good news for Scott Levitan’s pups, Gizmo and Jensen. Photo by Beth Mann.

For the past 60 years, many of the innovations and ideas that shape our world were formulated, hatched and brought to reality in the wide swath of piney forest known as Research Triangle Park. The park was founded as an attempt to keep the talent that was being churned out by Duke, UNC and N.C. State within the state. But now it draws talent from all over the globe, and holds unique prestige among technological and innovation hubs. 

Since its founding, “RTP has been a model for many research parks around the world,” Scott Levitan, Research Triangle Foundation’s chief executive, said. But, it is not merely a lesson in history.

RTP is governed by a board of 28, which includes the presidents of the three universities, and it consists of 24 million-square-feet of built space spread across 7,000 acres. It is home to more than 300 companies, 50,000 employees and an additional 10,000 contractors. Its size is matched by its fiscal and cultural capital, which has been a driving force behind the growth and prosperity of the area at large. According to a study by RTI International, the park pays its employees more than $700 million in annual income.  

It has a roster of industry giants, including RTI, as well as Cisco and IBM, and is still growing.

Though its current scope may have seemed unimaginable to its founders, its mission is the same: to foster innovation, endear future-shaping companies to the area, and work in concert with regional world-class universities and industry leaders. It has always been a vision of the future.

RTP was established in 1959 by local leaders and academics who saw a need to move away from the Piedmont’s standard industries like agriculture, furniture and textiles, and to focus instead on what the future of commerce might look like. 

Nestled in the center of the Triangle, the park was seen as a hub in which the three universities could coexist in their research and as an axis of thought that could lure the world’s most fascinating and forward-thinking companies.

These goals have largely been met. 

RTI was one of the first big successes, opening simultaneously with the park. Its growth and focus on scientific applications helped spark interest in other companies, and many followed the nonprofit into the budding park.  

In mid-1965, IBM, now RTP’s most famous tenant, moved in, growing the company’s local footprint to nearly 15,000 employees. By 1970, Burroughs Wellcome, the British company that eventually became pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, set up shop in RTP. 

Within a few short years, some of the world’s most exciting and universal technologies were produced in RTP. AstroTurf, soon to be found on baseball and football fields around the country, was developed in the mid-’60s. Fewer than 10 years later, the Universal Product Code — commonly known as the UPC — was created in the park. From Bell Labs’ creation of digital cellular technology (aka cell phones) to the creation of the 3D ultrasound and LED lighting, the companies throughout RTP were regularly generating technological advancements with universal applications. 

But it wasn’t just football fields and car phones. Many of the innovations have improved and even saved lives. 

In the mid-’80s, RTP scientists re-engineered Azidothymidine, a failed cancer-fighting drug, as the first effective response to the AIDS epidemic. In 2013, scientists and doctors announced that, for the first time, an HIV patient had been effectively cured thanks in large part to research done in the park. Just last month, a second patient was reported to be cured. 

Companies like Sapere Bio, a six-person startup that uses biomarkers to predict a person’s biological age in an effort to keep them healthier longer, are the newest generation. Its founders operated the company out of one of their homes. They knew they needed a bigger work area, but they also needed one that would allow them to remain a small, focused company with a tight staff and minimal lab and office space. After moving into RTP, Sapere Bio’s team soon realized they had found a partner that both recognized the value of their mission and also looked at workspaces from a new angle.

The park “allowed us to customize our space down to the electrical outlets,” said Dr. Natalia Mitin, Sapere Bio’s co-founder, president and chief executive. “They worked with us to utilize every single inch of the space we’re in.” 

RTP also embraced the company’s need for a small lab-office hybrid, she said, and did not scoff at a startup in search of less than 3,000 square feet.

“We will forever be grateful for that experience,” Dr. Mitin said. 

Sapere Bio is housed in The Frontier, a section of modern office spaces at RTP that recently opened in some former IBM buildings.

The Frontier is cultivating a more communal experience for employees, with more than 100 companies in its building, and a co-working space. The Frontier offers Food Truck Fridays, regular mid-day yoga classes and a TED Talk-inspired information series called RTP 180.

When RTP was formed, “research was different,” Levitan said. “It was private. So the model was a very protected campus where you controlled your periphery and all of your corporate secrets stayed behind the pines.” 

Many companies still prefer the seclusion of the woods, but Levitan and his cohort realize the value of encouraging open communication among companies and their staffs. 

The craft of building a community in some ways mirrors RTP’s larger story: creating a shared space and mutual history, embracing innovation through in-the-moment connections over a quick bite to eat – or a locally crafted beer during one of The Frontier’s Thursday Happy Hours. But, RTP’s main focus – as it was on day one, year one – is on what’s next.

RTP is poised to begin work on phase one of a gargantuan addition – a $1 billion, 2 million-square-feet, pedestrian-friendly and mixed-use campus that will include retail and office space, a 400-room hotel and 13.5 acres of open space. Split into two phases, the project is expected to be completed in 2026 and generate $83 million in tax revenue by 2028, according to an economic impact study conducted by RTI. Once up and running, the study says, the development will produce some 4,200 on-site jobs.

Boxyard RTP, in addition to housing retail and dining options, will also showcase events, providing social, educational and health-oriented opportunities to patrons.

Next year, RTP’s attention will also be on unveiling Boxyard RTP, which Levitan describes as an incubator for retail companies and nascent restaurateurs. Built from repurposed shipping containers, the 15,000-square-foot cargotecture development will be another communal space, filled with plug-and-play kitchens, retail pop-ups, open space and live music events.

“There has never been a reason for people to socialize in RTP, so we’re trying to optimize interior circulation modality,” said Levitan, recognizing that such socialization leads not only to a pleasant lunch, but often also to an intra-park exchange of ideas, concepts and visions. 

Lucas Blair, who runs RTI’s Immersive Technology Lab and is working to develop real-world applications for virtual and augmented reality technologies, said that RTP’s efforts to foster a sense of community among the companies held inherent value. 

“I always try and go to Food Truck Fridays,” Blair said. He also lauded the RTP 180 programs, having just given a presentation about the use of “smart classrooms.” 

“There is a sense of community here,” Blair continued. “Just being around so many smart and talented people, every day is amazing.” – Michael Venutolo-Mantovani 

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