Bob Geolas has a new response to the naysayers that call Research Triangle Park old-fashioned and dead, those who doubt his high hopes to attract creatives and entrepreneurs to work in the park.
That response: Free work and meeting space and a cafe inside the largest open innovation center in the nation. It's called The Frontier and it opens January 15, 2015. Here's a sneak peek inside the building.
Geolas, the park foundation's CEO, envisions the center as a beta test site, where entrepreneurs and investors, engineers, artists, writers and others from around the state can experiment with new mediums, business models and technologies. Beyond the first floor lobby and free workspace, plans are in place to offer affordable, non-binding private offices (starting at $300/month), studio space for visual and graphic artists, a writer's community and eventually a makerspace. Many events will happen at The Frontier, including the Jan. 12 ExitEvent
Startup Social, and partnerships with entities like HQ Raleigh, American Underground and all of the local universities will lead to educational programming.
"We're not trying to create new startup space," says Geolas. "We have a good environment for that. The concept is to simply open 120,000 square feet of space and invite a diverse group of organizations to be our new pioneers in the Frontier."
The Frontier will take over one of eight vacant 1970s and 80s-era buildings in Research Triangle Park's Park Center, which the foundation acquired a year ago as part of its vision of changing the park's culture, adding 24/7 features like apartments, a hotel and restaurants and inviting everyone to be involved in its remaking. The Frontier's building at 800 Park Center is the first renovation. With a price tag of at least $500,000, it includes modern furniture, a bar (with kegerator and coffee station), a living room area, co-working tables and walls coated with large graphics of unexplored mountain ranges and open fields. It also will be one of the first buildings in the Triangle to have one-gigabit-per-second Internet speeds thanks to a partnership with Frontier Communications. RTP staff members Jacob Newbauer and Anna Rhyne will manage the
space and host the events.
Geolas admits he didn't know what to do with the property initially. He assumed the foundation would tear the buildings down and build something new. But an a-ha came one day while he had coffee with his wife at Jubala in North Raleigh. She suggested a space for the "new pioneers" to come to RTP, a place where experimentation can happen.
The reasoning? "One of the criticisms we'd heard was that even if we created an environment, that people wouldn't even use it," Geolas says.
So The Frontier would let people create the environment. RTP would just provide the space. On a tour of the campus a day later, Geolas decided Building 800 would be the best fit. It had a big open, sunny lobby, many open spaces and individual offices. It was 120,000 square feet, and upon some research, Geolas determined it could be the largest open innovation space in the nation.
Though cities like Boston, Las Vegas, St. Louis and Seattle have innovation districts (evidenced by this Brookings Institution report, which also mentions RTP), there wasn't a single building of The Frontier's size that would bring together so many different types of innovators in an open environment. *The MIT Media Lab is 163,000 square feet but is reserved for MIT students, professors and corporations who pay big bucks to collaborate with the bunch.
"I didn't see a space that would say, not only will we love you if you're in IT or networking, but if you're a graphic artist and design studio and if you're a writer," Geolas says. "The idea is innovation across boundaries, where everybody is welcome."
Another reason? RTP already has a large community of small companies and entrepreneurs—60 percent of the tenants have 20 employees or less. Many now flock to the building for its Friday Food Truck Rodeos. The Frontier will be a place for them to gather and network.
The U.S. Army Research Office has already committed to an office on the top floor of the building. Triangle ArtWorks will host classes and programs there. RTP's US2020 science and technology mentoring will happen there, along with the RTP 180 events.
Collaborations are under way with the universities to open design studio space. More details will be shared in January as the building nears its grand opening.
Geolas and his team see The Frontier as the first manifestation of the park's reinvention.
"We love the idea of a frontier because it seemed to us that we're resettling the park," he says. "It's an older area that has been quiet and sedate for a long time, and that is about to change."