Rivalry and Collaboration
Three universities try to overcome historical rivalries
James P. Cain has an armful of credentials — attorney, former U.S. ambassador, former CEO of the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes — but the most crucial one for doing business in the Research Triangle might be the one he lacks.
Cain did not go to school at Duke University, North Carolina State University or University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
That gives him neutral status in the Triangle, a region where university affiliation can be all-important — and not only during the NCAA Final Four. If the economic consultant were an alumnus of one of the three, it would be more difficult for him to do business with the other two.
“We grow up with those who go to school 10 miles away as our arch-enemies and competitors,” Cain said. “It makes collaboration and regionalism very difficult to accomplish.”
A lack of cooperation
Few regions in the country are lucky enough to claim three top research universities. Their contributions are crucial to the Triangle’s economic and entrepreneurial success, but officials acknowledge that the universities and region could accomplish more if they could overcome their rivalries.
“Collaboration between the universities has not been, in many cases, what it could be. In the area of entrepreneurship, in particular,” said Tom Miller, senior vice provost for academic outreach and entrepreneurship at NC State.
“The area has enough potential, but potential doesn’t get it done. They need to blow up the old world, leave the rivalry on the hardwood floor and learn to collaborate,” said William Greenlee, president and CEO of the Hamner Institutes for Health Sciences. Hamner is negotiating with the three schools to join a new science campus in Research Triangle Park.
The Tobacco Road rivalry is played out most publicly on the basketball court, but beyond the trophies, the schools compete for faculty, students, donations, research grants and prestige.
Duke has a teaching hospital and medical school. So does UNC. All three have business schools. Duke is private. UNC and NC State are public. The fact that the universities are located in separate cities adds a civic element to the rivalry.
There are, of course, numerous examples of cooperation between the universities, the most visible of which is Research Triangle Park, the single most important economic engine in the region. The schools also are partners at American Underground in Durham and various programs.
Asked for recent examples of collaboration, everyone cites the Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network, a new effort to link Triangle startups with mentors and funding. And, yes, its partners include the three major universities, as well as North Carolina Central University in Durham.
However, it took an outsider to bring about the collaboration. The network was the creation of the Blackstone Group, a global financial firm based in New York. And Blackstone hired someone from Boston, not the Triangle, to help jumpstart a region it thought was not performing up to its potential.
“The good thing about Blackstone is because we’re not associated with one university or one community we’re kind of like Switzerland and so we’ve been able to break down some of those barriers between Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill and the four universities. As Switzerland, we’re allowed to go on any campus without any bias, to go into any community without any bias,” said Robert Creeden, executive director of the network.
Cain, who jokes that the diplomatic skills he acquired as ambassador to Denmark come in handy in the Triangle, said greater collaboration among the universities, industries and cities would make the region one of the top entrepreneurial centers in the country.
However, even critics say the situation is improving.
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“I’m starting to see much more cooperation as founder communities are coming together and mixing it up,” said Ted Zoller, director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at UNC.
As the universities emphasize tech transfer and commercialization, they’re more likely to partner with each other and find ways to complement each other’s strengths. For example, Duke and UNC researchers working on medical devices can find the engineering prowess they need at NC State.
Entrepreneurs are ruthlessly practical and will ally with anyone who has the skills they need, regardless of who they root for in March. The Triangle is full of examples of successful companies with leaders from two or more schools in the area. The younger generation of entrepreneurs is less concerned with school and town ties. The HQ Raleigh incubator was opened by two Duke graduates. Though started by a Raleigh company, American Underground opened two locations in Durham before adding one in Raleigh.
The schools also are strengthening ties with their respective communities, efforts that will inevitably enmesh them in the greater entrepreneurial community in the Triangle. “We have the entrepreneurial ecosystems of the three universities now anchored to the entrepreneur ecosystems of the three communities and now they’re interoperating. So we’re creating a density that ultimately will pay dividends,” Zoller said.
Cain said he expects the universities to work more closely together.
“These are very smart people,” he said. “So they understand that if we as a region are going to thrive in the coming generation as we have for the past two generations we have to have a different model.”