The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is celebrating a decade of transformation at Nebraska Innovation Campus this month as it looks ahead to future growth at the research park on the former State Fairgrounds.
What started in 2012 as a pair of hollowed out buildings at the once home of the Nebraska State Fair has turned into more than 455,000-square-feet of research labs and business space with an estimated economic impact approaching $455 million.
“We’ve been thrilled with the progress we’ve been able to make,” said executive director Dan Duncan, who has overseen the campus’ development since it began 10 years ago.
It hasn’t been easy to see, however.
Duncan said the early years at Innovation Campus were “a little rough” as construction workers outnumbered permanent employees while buildout of research labs and office suites and collaborative spaces was completed.
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Then, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Food Science and Technology Department relocated to Innovation Campus, bringing faculty, students and staff along with them.
By 2017, three years after the research campus opened, roughly 350 permanent jobs, most linked to UNL, were headquartered at Innovation Campus, along with 60 part-time positions and 56 internships, according to a report submitted to the Legislature.
The most recent figures, which include calendar year 2021 for private sector businesses, and 2021-22 for university-affiliated jobs, show 974 full-time positions, along with dozens of internships, and temporary employees now located at the research park.
While most of Innovation Campus’ 58 partners provide data as part of the annual survey, not all do, so that number may in fact be higher, campus officials said.
And the construction activity over the 10-year period essentially translates to 57,000-square-feet annually, Duncan added.
Achieving a “critical mass” of people at Innovation Campus has demonstrated the activity needed to spark further development of businesses that add to the flavor and culture of the campus through amenities like The Mill, which doubles as a coffee shop and bar giving employees a place to meet before, during or after work hours.
“Employees like amenities and employers like employees to be happy,” Duncan said.
Earlier this year, the Scarlet Hotel also opened, which added a second coffee shop, restaurant and rooftop lounge to Innovation Campus’ offerings, along with lodging across the street from the research park’s conference center.
In addition to serving business and entertainment purposes for Innovation Campus, the Scarlet Hotel will also become a hub for UNL’s Hospitality, Restaurant and Tourism Management program, which promises to bring more activity to campus.
Duncan said Innovation Campus will continue to look at amenities that would make the location attractive to both businesses looking to drop anchor in Lincoln, and those spun off from university research.
One of the main services Duncan says he would like to bring to Innovation campus is a child care facility.
“There is a shortage in the city and a shortage at the university,” he said. “A (child care) makes it easier for people to come back to work.”
With eyes on several projects — chiefly the location of a U.S. Department of Agriculture research building and a companion facility that will turn research discoveries into marketable products — Duncan said Innovation Campus hopes the trajectory will continue upward.
The USDA facility, tentatively titled the National Center for Resilient and Regenerative Precision Agriculture, is in the design phase, with construction anticipated to begin in the spring of 2024.
The companion building got a boost from the Legislature earlier this year, which appropriated $25 million to go along with a match in private donations to pay for the 80,000-square-foot facility. Those funds are being raised.
Duncan said the existing buildings at Innovation Campus are fully leased, so planners are eyeing how they can create more space for new or existing companies to locate.
“A lot of the companies we work with are not patient enough to wait for a building to be built, so having a shell space where they can move in in four to six months is really important,” Duncan said. “You just have to be ready to jump on opportunities.”
As Innovation Campus looks ahead to its next decade, Duncan said he expects there will be an added focus on start-up companies spun off from research done at UNL and with partnerships of Invest Nebraska and BioNebraska.
“We’ve gotten to the point where there is going to be a lot of growth in that area,” Duncan said.
Some of those startups will continue to operate at Innovation Campus, while others may move into other spaces across Lincoln or Nebraska.
“It’s going to be really good for the campus and for the entire community,” Duncan said.