University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: Downtown Chapel Hill innovation district accelerates on the heels of new partnerships, plans

The recent return of students to Chapel Hill — and the added buzz of activity that they bring to downtown — aren’t the only changes you’re likely to notice around town this fall.

Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz and Town of Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger today announced during a Chancellor’s Economic Development Council meeting a series of steps that the University and town are taking to increase the economic vibrancy of downtown Chapel Hill.

The announced actions are next phases in the university-town partnership and joint Carolina Economic Development Strategy, which was launched in the spring. The strategy is designed to create a downtown innovation district that will retain, attract and grow more innovation-oriented companies and talent in Chapel Hill. This effort is led by Innovate Carolina, UNC-Chapel Hill’s initiative for innovation and entrepreneurship, and two town-gown committees comprised of University, town and community leaders.

“Downtown is at an exciting inflection point, and leaders in our local Carolina community have made great progress in shaping the vision and objectives we share into initiatives that will make a real economic impact,” said Guskiewicz. “The work that the town and University are doing together will build on critical projects such as the redevelopment of downtown’s largest office building, opening a modern central parking structure and expanding outdoor dining.”

“It is exciting to see that the steps we have taken to bolster office space and infrastructure are yielding near-term results that support our shared vision of creating a thriving innovation hub,” said Hemminger. “Bringing new year-round employees here is just one component of our plan to harness the energy of UNC, retain talent in our community and make downtown Chapel Hill a more welcoming and exciting place for everyone in our community.”

Updates announced by Guskiewicz, Hemminger and other leaders included:

Partnership with BioLabs to launch more UNC-Chapel Hill startups.
The University and BioLabs, a premier co-working space for life science startups, are developing a strategic partnership to create a greater number of startups based on Carolina faculty research. The goal of the partnership is to launch one new research-based startup from UNC-Chapel Hill each month. Once launched, such companies will become prime candidates to grow and stay in Chapel Hill, contributing to the economic growth of the region. The partnership will entail accelerator programming, close collaboration with Innovate Carolina’s on-campus KickStart Accelerator for life science startups, and venture-based education and training for faculty and students. BioLabs is the first business partner that will collaborate with the University and Town through the new innovation district.“UNC-Chapel Hill and the Town of Chapel Hill have always had enormous potential to develop an innovation district built around the University’s expansive research portfolio and innovation pipeline in the life sciences industry,” said Eric Linsley, co-founder of BioLabs NC. “Our new partnership with the University is a key step to helping unlock this potential because we have deep expertise cultivating biotech startups in other top-tier life science innovation districts across the U.S. We are excited to collaborate with the many partners in Chapel Hill who will be key to our collective success in creating more companies that will take off and grow in the area.”
Adopt-a-Block program to improve downtown maintenance and beautification. The program will initially focus on the 100 blocks of East Franklin and South Columbia streets. Immediate efforts include new landscaping of rights-of-way and public sidewalks as well as adding numerous art displays to public spaces. The improvements will begin this fall and continue through spring 2022. The University will ask students to participate in and help lead the project.
Downtown innovation district development planning.The University and Town hired Business Street, a nationally recognized consulting firm, to design an innovation district plan that will recommend practical ways to increase the downtown’s vibrancy. The plan is being guided by a task force composed of town, University and Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership leaders and is slated for completion by March 2022.
Request for proposals to establish a Carolina innovation hub in the district. The hub will co-locate the University’s programming that supports innovation and entrepreneurship with co-working space that startups and established companies can use to work closely with Carolina’s students, faculty and researchers. The University expects the hub to open in early 2022. It will initially occupy 20,000 square feet of innovation and co-working space and could expand based on demand. The new request for proposals is a continuation of the work done by Innovate Carolina – the University’s initiative for innovation and entrepreneurship – to bolster innovation spaces, commercialization and venture development over the last several years.
The University will start recruiting alumni, business and research partners to co-locate in Chapel Hill once the innovation hub’s location is selected — an effort that will expand once the development strategy for the innovation district is completed.

The University’s actions are being coordinated by the Chancellor’s Economic Development Council, a committee of academic and business unit leaders led by Doug Rothwell, a Carolina alumnus nationally recognized for his economic development work, and Sheryl Waddell, interim director for economic development with Innovate Carolina.