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New UNCC business hub aims to grow new firms, create thousands of jobs

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/02/18/18/17/18hbi6.Em.138.jpeg|208
    JOHN D. SIMMONS - jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com
    Sunshine pours through skylights onto the the fourth floor of the PORTAL building at UNC Charlotte. PORTAL – or Partnership, Outreach and Research to Accelerate Learning – is a $35 million, 96,000-square-foot facility designed to stimulate business growth and job creation along with promoting research and innovation.
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    John D. Simmons - jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/02/18/18/06/shGQ5.Em.138.jpeg|191
    John D. Simmons - jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/02/18/18/06/1kIYLK.Em.138.jpeg|209
    John D. Simmons - jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com
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    John D. Simmons - jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

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UNC Charlotte officials unveiled a $35 million business hub on campus Tuesday, calling the four-story center a potential catalyst for thousands of new jobs and a potent incubator for new companies.

Officials said the 96,000-square-foot PORTAL building will house new and startup companies as well as offices for major corporations. Its name is an acronym for Partnership, Outreach and Research to Accelerate Learning.

University officials said about a dozen companies have a presence on campus, and the school’s partnerships with such firms have produced about 200 jobs. They hope that, with the new center enhancing the university’s business incubation efforts, they can grow that number to about 2,000 over the next decade.

“We’re looking for big things here,” said Robert Wilhelm, vice chancellor for research and economic development. “Not just to grow what we have on campus, but also (to) bring our ideas and our results into practice, into application, into new products and therapies both in the Charlotte region and around the world.”

He and other officials said the new building will allow companies to collaborate with professors, students and each other on innovative products and technologies sprouting from cutting-edge academic research.

Wilhelm said major corporations can gain access to startups that are often nimbler in deploying new ideas and technology, while small firms can benefit by collaborating with bigger companies.

Ventureprise, the university’s business incubator, will also relocate to the new building from its off-campus location, offering startups coaching as well as help in developing business models.

Ventureprise dates to 1986, when it was launched as the Ben Craig Center. It has helped 135 companies, including Digital Optics, a company founded by a UNCC professor that was acquired in 2006 by Tessera North America for $60 million.

The PORTAL building will be dedicated Feb. 28, but some companies have already started working there.

As university officials offered reporters a tour Tuesday, they passed the offices of Driving MBA, a group developing a video simulator to help teach driving.

Murdoch Morrison, Driving MBA’s chairman, was watching his friend Cave Gaines operate the simulator, which cast images of highway driving scenes across several computer screens.

The technology has been used successfully in Arizona, Morrison said, and the company needed an East Coast operations base.

Asked why he set up shop in the PORTAL building, he replied: “Collaboration with the university. We’re going to actually build simulators here at some point, but we’re still in testing at this point. We’re taking the long view.”

Ventureprise aims to serve up to two dozen companies with annual revenues of less than $2 million. Officials said the objective is to help them outgrow PORTAL, recruiting new businesses to replace the exiting ones.

“We’re looking for innovation-driven entrepreneurs that have the potential to build national or global markets for their products or service,” said Paul Wetenhall, president of Ventureprise. “We want companies that are coachable. And we are looking for companies that can reach at least $5 million in revenue within five years.”

Frazier: 704-358-5145; @Ericfraz on Twitter
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