President and CEO of the Orlando Economic Development Commission, Rick Weddle served as president and CEO of the Research Triangle Park (RTP) in North Carolina for seven years immediately prior to his arrival at the Orlando EDC in 2011. He currently serves as the first American president of the International Association of Science Parks and Areas of Innovation.
His 35 years of economic development experience have given him both regional and global perspectives. A self-professed member of the evangelical wing of the economic development party, he shares some of his views.
RAGS TO RICHES
In the mid- to late-1950s, North Carolina realized that it was suffering from a serious brain drain. The region was educating its children, but then they left for New York, Philadelphia and other cities for jobs after high school or college.
Back then the Research Triangle (then known as Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill) was the poorest region in North Carolina per capita income and one of the two or three poorest in the Southeast. Today it is the richest region in North Carolina and boasts one of the largest concentrations of PhDs in the nation.
When RTP started, they called the high-tech industry—new line industries. In 1959, 11 percent of the workforce was employed in this sector. Today, more than half of the workforce in RTP is in high-tech sectors, and more than two-thirds of the high-tech employment in North Carolina is in the Research Triangle.
Much of RTP’s lasting success comes from what I call transgenerational legacy leadership. It involved academic, government and business leaders who were willing to commit and devote their full measure of energy, effort and resources to a task so big, so huge, they knew they would never see it finished in their lifetime.
ORLANDO: A NEW CANVAS
Orlando is certainly well known, but it’s poorly understood. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about this business, and I had no idea of the depth and breadth and providence of Florida’s research community before coming here.
Discovery and innovation are about doing something that hasn’t been done. That’s what appeals to me about Orlando, and it’s why I came to Florida. No one here says to me, “I can’t do that” or “it can’t be done here.” Good ideas are embraced, embedded and taken full advantage of to the benefit of the region.
So when you look at Orlando, what you begin to see is a wholly networked innovation system. It is early in its development but correctly organized for the future. There is not an effort to contain everything in one location. Instead, you have universities embedded in 10 or so incubators around the region—embedded in Medical City, embedded in the Creative Village downtown.
It isn’t so much about creating one central location; it’s about the connectivity of people and knowledge across this region.
SUCCESSFUL RESEARCH PARKS
First and foremost is a vision, a task, an objective—of such scale that it could in and of itself become an organizing principle for the region. Scale is necessary to be able to have a blended mix of large firms and small firms, and research institutes and academic endeavors together. It’s very important that a research park is sufficiently large to achieve scale.
The role of universities and research is transformative, and people and institutions must be willing to embrace new ideas and ways of doing things. Medical City is a national example of this, because it is a willful, purposeful, deliberate effort to be transformational.