Extending the REACH of NC experts

For Tom White, director of North Carolina State University’s Economic Development Partnership, a typical day includes answering a wide range of questions from business and industry representatives, economic developers and workforce specialists seeking university expertise to help solve problems, conduct research, or determine whether a business expansion makes sense.

When Harnett County economic development officials contacted him recently looking for experts to help investors evaluate the feasibility of a waste-to-energy convergence project to generate electricity, he turned to REACH NC to connect them with university-based experts in sustainable/renewable energy and engineering disciplines relevant to the proposed manufacturing process. The company, White recalled, was considering a Harnett County site and facility and needed to know if their plan was feasible.

REACH NC, a web-based interface that allows users to find experts at North Carolina research institutions, helped White efficiently and effectively connect the company with the expertise needed.

“I interact with numerous faculty members who have content knowledge and expertise in our innovation industry cluster domains, but doing the research to link them with the right people was beyond what I can do on my own as an economic developer,” said White. “REACH NC is a great tool for those kinds of inquiries, especially if we are dealing with someone who has a very specific technical need.”

REACH NC, which stands for Research, Engagement and Capabilities Hub of North Carolina, began as a way to allow businesses, university research teams, nonprofits and the public to easily tap into the state’s vast pool of university-based expertise. Launched with funding from UNC General Administration and Duke University and supported in part by funding from the Golden LEAF Foundation, the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, the Triangle Universities Center for Advanced Studies, Inc. and the Research Triangle Foundation, REACH NC currently includes profiles of about 7,500 faculty members at 15 UNC campuses and Duke University, as well as a small number of researchers at RTI International in Research Triangle Park. That number will expand by about 9,000 to an estimated total of 18,000 profiles once the system is fully loaded, said REACH NC Executive Director Sharlini Sankaran.

“For a university researcher, the system means an easy way to discover potential collaborators,” said Sanakran. “ For the economic development community, it provides them with access to the intellectual capacity of our universities.”

The information in the REACH NC profiles comes from the Scopus database, a source of information on research papers published in peer-reviewed journals, and from RAMSeS, a UNC system tool that tracks grants received by faculty. Most faculty already included in the system are experts in life sciences, physical sciences, engineering and other technical disciplines that place a heavy emphasis on journal publications. Expanding REACH NC to include experts in the arts and humanities will require a different approach, according to Sankaran, including pulling in data from other sources of scholarly content, such books and book chapters, and artistic performances and installations.

RENCI’s role

RENCI has been involved in REACH NC since the project began about three years ago. RENCI data experts built the data backbone for REACH NC and developed protocols for user access and data management and storage. RENCI staff also designed and implemented the Web front end for the tool.  Hong Yi, a RENCI senior research software developer, is creating information visualizations that will group experts by their areas of expertise and professional backgrounds. The visualizations will make searching the database and finding connections more intuitive for users.

“RENCI’s role in getting REACH NC set up and working out some of the technical issues has been critical,” said Sankaran. “It came at a time when resources were scarce and it helped us put together a high-quality technical product right from the start.”

Potential uses for REACH NC are vast and varied: From finding fermentation experts to advise new breweries in the Asheville area, to connecting corporate chief science officers to university colleagues so they can determine whether North Carolina is the right fit for their companies, to connecting faculty researchers at different campuses so they can develop collaborative proposals for government grants, REACH NC achieves in several mouse clicks what often required weeks of research and phone calls.

Kathie Sidner, defense applications engineer with UNC General Administration’s Federal Government Relations office, uses REACH NC regularly to connect the defense and intelligence communities with UNC experts. Recently, she helped identify a large number of university experts who could team with companies in Research Triangle Park and Fayetteville to help them pursue new contract opportunities with the Department of Defense.

“I used REACH NC extensively to respond to this request for information about our system-wide R&D capabilities and our expertise in chemical and biological defense, critical infrastructure protection, data management and analysis, and emergency response,” said Sidner.

For more information:
REACH NC website