The seed for the Charlotte Research Institute (CRI) was planted in early 1998 when the Charlotte Chamber retained ICF Kaiser's Economic Strategy Group to talk with business and civic leaders to define issues and initiatives critical to the region's future. A key identified initiative was the need for the Charlotte region to build a better research and technology infrastructure, which included the acceleration of UNC Charlotte's development as a top-tier research university. To achieve this, it was proposed that the University create a dedicated public/private research institute on campus to complement and stimulate the economic growth of the region.
In 1999, the University engaged McKinsey & Company pro bono to study research and technology infrastructure acceleration in the region. The McKinsey report concluded that “to be essential to the long-term vitality of the region and state that Charlotte move immediately to expand its research and technology infrastructure and foster high tech business development”. The report recommended that UNC Charlotte establish an institute that would simultaneously accelerate its development as a research university and stimulate entrepreneurship and economic growth in the Charlotte region. It further recommended that the university carefully select focused research areas with the greatest potential for success. These early recommendations suggested a private/public research institute similar in structure to that of the Georgia Tech Research Institute and Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, where researchers are employed directly by the Institute. That proposed model evolved into a hybrid research center approach using a targeted small number of existing interdisciplinary UNC Charlotte research clusters of emerging prominence to fuel the Institute. The earliest vision for a UNC Charlotte research campus included: 1) enhanced research facilities; 2) upgraded technology transfer capabilities; 3) seed research funding; 4) nationally recognized researchers; and 5) the ability to attract commercial/industry collaborators and create a start-up friendly campus environment.
In 2000, North Carolina legislative action, known as the Millennial Act, provided the opportunity for each UNC system campus to create a research campus similar to the NCSU Centennial Campus and be exempt from the provisions of the Umstead Act. A top-level steering committee of McKinsey consultants and UNC Charlotte faculty and administrators, with strong advocacy from Chancellor Jim Woodward, continued work on what was called the “Millennial Campus Project”. A 2000 UNC Charlotte research campus presentation was made to its Board of Trustees during which the “Millennial Campus Concept” components were outlined: 1) create intellectual capital through technology research with relevance to the regional economy; 2) leverage UNC Charlotte’s unique role in attracting and developing talent for the region; 3) develop research space “without boundaries”; 4) give priority to strategically focused research based on clearly identified research goals and grounded by effectively resourced programs; 5) build on interdisciplinary strengths; and 6) program development based on new economy models. This study and Board presentation advocated for the creation of the Charlotte Institute for Technology Innovation (now the Charlotte Research Institute), a recommendation that was enacted in December 2000.
The newly formed Charlotte Institute for Technology Innovation (CITI), or Charlotte Institute for short, established two initial central research focus areas - Optoelectronics and Precision Metrology/Intelligent Manufacturing - with eBusiness Technology added as a third focus area shortly thereafter. Potential affiliations with Urban Studies, Biotechnology, and the Ben Craig Center were also explored during these early studies. At its first meeting in March 2001, the CITI Board noted that a previously dormant 501c3 corporation, known as the University Research Corporation, was reestablished as the Charlotte Institute for Technology Innovation with all updated bylaws and governance requirements. Also discussed at that first Board meeting were concerns about brand confusion specific to the CITI acronym (with Citigroup), an early indication that CITI would eventually experience a name change to the Charlotte Research Institute (CRI) in 2003.
In February 2002, a $10M endowment pledge to CRI was made by Duke Energy – the largest gift made by the Duke Energy Foundation to UNC Charlotte to date. This “Duke Endowment” was to “serve as a catalyst for regional growth in high tech industry”. Additionally, the university received $576K to fund the UNC Charlotte Duke Energy Distinguished Professor of Engineering and Science and a $1M CRI funding pledge by Wachovia. These early gifts continue to fund CRI supported research and economic development initiatives.
The 2003 Charlotte Institute vision stated that it would “enhance the technology infrastructure of the Charlotte region by facilitating the development of intellectual capital through global collaboration with industry, academia, and government to create a top-tier interdisciplinary technology research community.” In that same year its stated mission was to “facilitate the development of applied technology by: 1) pursuing strategically planned and focused interdisciplinary research programs in collaboration with industry, academic, and government sectors that will generate world recognized accomplishments; and 2) advancing the development of human and intellectual capital by attracting and leveraging expertise and resources to enhance the research, academic, and technology foundations of the region.”
In March 2006, the Charlotte Research Institute moved into its new home in Grigg Hall on what became known as the CRI Campus of UNC Charlotte. Each of the earliest identified CRI research foci found homes in new state-of-the-art facilities as well, including eBusiness Technology (Woodward), Optoelectronics and Optical Science (Grigg), and Precision Metrology (Duke).
Since its inception, CRI has had several organizational configurations and affiliation relationships under Interim Executive Director Beth Hardin (2000 - August 2002), who reported to the Chancellor, and Executive Directors Deborah Clayton (August 2002 – June 2005) and Bob Wilhelm (June 2005 – May 2018) who reported to the Provost. By 2008, CRI key research center affiliations had been expanded to eight including Bioinformatics, Biomedical Engineering, Visualization, Information Security, and Motorsports. Also at that time, the new Kannapolis NC Research Campus office, the Ben Craig Center, and a Director of Neuro-Life Sciences Partnerships reported to CRI Executive Director Wilhelm. In 2009, the CRI strategic plan outlined three phases of growth: 1) embryonic and organic growth; 2) PORTAL industry-university partnership; and 3) innovation ecosystem.
In December 2010 the CRI Board of Directors approved the dissolution of the Institute’s 501c3 non-profit corporation. Shortly thereafter, the Charlotte Research Institute was merged with the university’s Research and Federal Relations Office to form an administrative unit called Research and Economic Development (R&ED) under the direction of newly appointed Vice Chancellor for R&ED and CRI Executive Director Bob Wilhelm. The Ben Craig Center, rebranded as Ventureprise, Inc., and the Charlotte Small Business and Technology Development Center (SBTDC) were included in this new R&ED unit.
The Millennial Campus designation, as provided by NC legislation, has allowed UNC Charlotte to efficiently engage with partner companies. Under this designation, partner companies are able to contract for use of university research capabilities and/or facilities on the Millennial Campus, contract for sole-use space, and construct and manage privately owned buildings. During the past 18 years the Charlotte Research Institute has served as the University’s portal for industry-government-university partnerships. It continues to generate and oversee industry-government-university space licensing at UNC Charlotte. What started as a cadre of about a half-dozen on-site CRI business partners has grown to over 30 partner companies residing in a portion of the approximately 120,000 sq. ft. of CRI-allocated space specifically designated for industry and government partnership as well as entrepreneurial support that includes engagement with faculty researchers seeking to commercialize their IP.
The CRI Campus experienced a decade of almost non-stop new research and academic building construction between 2002 and 2012 that included Grigg, Duke, Motorsports Research, Bioinformatics, and EPIC as well as a football stadium, sector utility plant, and parking deck. UNC Charlotte’s commitment to industry-government-university partnership was greatly expanded with the construction of the nearly 100,000 sq. ft. Partnership, Outreach and Research to Accelerate Learning (PORTAL) building which began construction in 2012 and opened in February 2014. PORTAL was designed to support partnership, entrepreneurship, and innovation, and did so, in part, by housing administrative offices for Ventureprise (moving from its off-campus Ben Craig Center location), the Office of Technology Transfer (OTT), and SBTDC. CRI has managed PORTAL, its partner-tenants, and new business and partner development since its opening.
Most recently CRI has undergone staffing changes at its senior levels. Between 2017 and 2018 both CRI Director of Research, Bruce LaMattina, and R&ED Vice Chancellor and CRI Executive Director, Bob Wilhelm, left the university to take positions at other institutions. Rick Tankersley, Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Education in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, currently serves as the Interim Vice Chancellor for Research and Economic Development and CRI Executive Director. CRI currently employs three full-time staff members and one contracted service provider. The CRI mission states: “CRI serves as the single point of contact between the university, industry, and government to stimulate research and create jobs. We work with allies at the local, regional, and state level to help generate new economic development investments. We maximize partnerships, create research teams, and generate results.” Its value proposition states: “A partnership with UNC Charlotte gives your business a distinct advantage: seamless connections with a fast-growing tier-one research university. Connections such as a co-location on our campus and direct access to our students, faculty and our specialized equipment takes your R&D efforts to the next level.”