SUNDAY EDITION | GE's FirstBuild is the prototype for long-planned U of L research park
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Open for only a year, General Electric’s FirstBuild “microfactory” has already churned out about a dozen new products like a countertop machine that makes nugget ice, an oven with a top drawer and an all-in-one modular kitchen for small apartments.
In a former shipping warehouse near the University of Louisville campus, GE’s engineers tinker alongside students, professors and just about anyone who’s interested – using designs and ideas submitted from all over the world.
The factory’s hacker-like approach has attracted international attention and won plaudits from magazines like Popular Science.
But for U of L, FirstBuild also serves as a model that the university wants to replicate on a much larger scale.
The university has long envisioned a massive manufacturing and engineering research park on nearly 40 acres between railroads and Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, just south of the J.B. Speed School of Engineering.
“Most people don’t recognize that the FirstBuild site is actually the beta site for this (research) park,” said Neville Pinto, U of L’s former engineering dean and now interim provost.
Pinto said the success of FirstBuild – and the opening of a 3D printing training facility next to the microfactory this fall – help illustrate the kind of industry-academic partnerships that could flourish in the much larger Belknap Engineering and Applied Sciences Research Park.
The park has been planned since 2008, when the university’s foundation spent $19.5 million to buy 33 acres from truck trailer manufacturer Kentucky Trailer.
The Kentucky Trailer buildings have been razed, except for one that has historical significance, and the site is otherwise vacant land.
An entrance road to the park opened to traffic in June, though it’s easy to miss amid the rental houses lining S. Third Street. The road – complete with two flyover ramps bridging railroad tracks -- connects S. Third to Brook Street and the main U of L campus.
Pinto said the university, through its foundation, is still two or three years away from completing the park’s first building, which is expected to cost $38 million.
It would be the first of four or five buildings in the park, each about 200,000 to 250,000 square feet, Pinto said.
Conceptual renderings of the initial building, called the Institute for Product Realization, show a 5-to-7 story portion that have offices and research laboratories connected to a sprawling warehouse with loading docks.
It’s in the warehouse portion that Pinto envisions manufacturers like GE renting factory space. UL, the Illinois company that is about to open the 3D-printing training facility next to GE’s FirstBuild, would have more capacity in the research park building, Pinto said.
Companies with interest in things like renewable energy could rent space in the office/laboratory section – where U of L’s Conn Center for Renewable Energy will move, Pinto said.
The park will also have a focus on computing and analytics, drawing on the university’s computer science department, Pinto said.
“What we are trying to do here is leverage what we have at the university and make it available to our region for economic development,” he said.
Pinto stressed that no tuition money is going toward the research park. The first building will be funded through an undetermined mix of private or borrowed money from the foundation and state dollars, he said.
And within three years, U of L officials expect to “break even” on the building’s cost through rents, federal research grants, training revenue from programs like the 3D printing workshop – which will cost $6,000 per participant -- and intellectual property that might accrue to the university if U of L researchers help get new products off the ground.
“The responsibility of the person leading this will be to ensure that it pays for itself,” Pinto said.
Last month, the $1.1 billion foundation voted to formally create the Institute for Product Realization. U of L is advertising for a director of the institute, which will have a staff and initial budget of about $1.5 million a year. Eventually, the annual budget is expected to reach about $5 million, Pinto said.
Downtown research park has “evolved”
Pinto insists that the companies that will rent space in the park will be primarily related to its focus on logistics and manufacturing, renewable energy and information technology.
“We are not just going to bring in any tenant that wants to be in there,” he said. “They are going to have to provide value to our academic mission.”
But the engineering park will be U of L foundation’s third “research park,” and if past experience is a guide, the final result may not exactly match the vision.
For example, the old Haymarket block that U of L is redeveloping downtown was originally described as a “life sciences research park.”
Today, the main tenant of the park’s brand-new 8-story office building at 300 E. Market St. is Atria Senior Living, an operator of assisted living centers that moved its headquarters office from another downtown Louisville location.
“It did evolve, and it has become much broader than just life sciences,” said Vickie Yates Brown, CEO of Nucleus, the U of L foundation affiliate overseeing the downtown research park, now called the J.D. Nichols Campus for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
Brown noted that Louisville economic development officials have also refined the city’s niche in general healthcare to “lifelong wellness and aging care” in an attempt to be the nation’s leading location for companies like Atria.
In addition to a number of U of L offices, the Nucleus building also includes XLerate Health, which helps early-stage healthcare companies get going; Advanced Cancer Therapeutics, which commercializes discoveries from U of L’s James Graham Brown Cancer Center; and Interapt, a mobile software developer.
“It really has become an innovation park, or an innovation center,” Brown said. “At this point, we’re open to anyone that is being innovative.”
Pinto: Strong interest from companies
So how many companies will be needed to make the engineering park viable? Pinto said U of L officials are working on a business plan for the park, but it’s too soon to answer those questions.
He said the fact that GE – through the FirstBuild factory – and UL are already on board shows the idea has merit.
“We feel pretty confident at the rate it’s going and the interest it’s generating,” he said.
GE opened FirstBuild – which is staffed by about 20 GE employees – last year at the repurposed warehouse at 333 E. Brandeis St. only because U of L’s research park was not ready, said Kim Freeman, spokeswoman for GE’s Louisville-based appliance division.
Freeman said the plan all along has been to move FirstBuild into the park.
But the pending $3.3 billion sale of GE’s appliances division to Electrolux has restricted GE’s ability to commit to lease space in the park, U of L President James Ramsey said in a written report to the U of L Board of Trustees in July.
Ramsey also wrote that U of L is talking to the U.S. Geological Survey about moving into the park.
The USGS has a Louisville office at 9818 Bluegrass Parkway. Pinto said the government agency is looking for a new Louisville location, and its scientific and civil engineering functions would make for natural connections to U of L.
A regional spokesman for the USGS did not respond to a request for comment.
Beyond those, no potential tenants have been publicly identified.
Pinto said the pace of the park’s development will be dictated by demand from tenants, who will be recruited by the “teams of professionals” at the budding Institute for Product Realization.
“We are not going to build it and wait for the folks to show up. All of this work is already happening,” he said.
Rich Gimmel, chairman of Louisville-based Atlas Machine & Supply, applauded U of L’s efforts to join up with Louisville’s network of manufacturers.
“We think the concept is laudable, and I am delighted to see the Speed School reaching outside the boundaries of the campus,” he said.
But Gimmel said his company, which makes machines for other manufacturers, isn’t looking to establish a presence in the research park over concerns about just who would benefit from any intellectual property, or “IP,” developed alongside university researchers or other companies.
“When you do these collaborative projects, the whole idea of who owns the IP gets a little bit muddy,” he said.
But in fact, what will distinguish U of L’s research park from other university parks is that it will be more focused on developing new products quickly than protecting intellectual property through patents, Pinto said.
He points to FirstBuild’s “co-creation” platform as an example. When GE was first interested in creating an all-in-one modular kitchen for urban apartments and hotels, it openly solicited designs for the product through the FirstBuild online platform.
FirstBuild received 87 designs and awarded 5 “first place” prizes of $2,500 each to people -- from as far away as Mexico and Argentina -- who submitted mock-ups of modular kitchen.
The final version of the product will be a mix of those concepts, said FirstBuild director Natarajan Venkatakrishnan.
Had GE developed the modular kitchen internally within the walls of Appliance Park, it might have taken a few years instead of months, Pinto said.
“This is a new environment. What you are saying to everybody out there is, ‘What we are more interested in is your idea than any rights to any intellectual property,’” he said.
At the same time, Pinto said the research park may generate revenue for the university through intellectual property.
The Institute for Product Realization, for example, may invest in promising technology brought in by smaller companies than GE or individual entrepreneurs, he said.
And, university faculty could be hired when entrepreneurs need lab work to resolve unanticipated issues with their new ideas, he said.
“We have the capability to solve very difficult, basic problems because we have this whole research-university structure behind us,” Pinto said.
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