Can Indiana create high-impact commercialization operations like what is seen in California and elsewhere? What can Indiana research and development efforts glean from such world-class success?

Here’s one example: Notwithstanding a full-scale 36-story model of the Saturn V Apollo rocket standing nearby, interesting early parallels exist between the high-impact Cummins Research Park (CSR) in Huntsville, Alabama and the WestGate @ Crane Technology Park in south central Indiana. Can WestGate and other Indiana certified technology parks hope to match Huntsville’s success? Let’s consider some interesting facts.

Prior to World War II, then-tiny Huntsville (pop. 13,000 in 1950) was known as the watercress capital of America. Today, Huntsville (pop. 188,000 in 2014 – the greater Huntsville metropolitan region is actually home to about 435,000 people) has the highest concentration of PhDs and engineers of any city in America and CSR is home to dozens of Fortune 50, Fortune 100 and Fortune 500 defense and commercial contractors.

As did the WestGate, the 3,843-acre Cummins Research Park – officially the second largest commercial research park in America – greatly benefited by the expansion of an adjacent military development facility. In the case of WestGate, it was the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC), Crane Division (built on NSA Crane, the 3rd largest Navy base in the world). In the case of Cummins, it was the Redstone Arsenal (originally called the Redstone Ordnance Plant). Both military facilities were started up during World War II.

Following the war, Redstone Arsenal was scaled back, draining the region. Locals tried bring in a military aviation project that many hoped would revitalize the base. But it was unsuccessful – sort of. As a kind of a consolation prize, the region was selected as a new site to house 118 German rocket scientists who had been brought to America. Redstone would also house part of the nation’s fledgling missile development operations.

The rest, as they say, was history. Werner von Braun and his German colleagues became part of NASA, and backwoods Huntsville Alabama was no more. It was transformed into America’s true “Rocket City.” Today, CSR is arguably the most successful research park for the commercialization of technology that exists in America.

But it wasn’t easy, nor was it simple, according to Erin Koshut, CSR director. As she recently related, it took much more than a handful of brilliant rocket scientists to build the high-impact Cummins Research Park. The key element: visionary local leaders who were determined to overcome obstacles and were willing to take major risks.

And the need for these visionary leaders in Huntsville was not a one-time thing.

While local economy exploded with the growth of the Apollo space program, the same area was economically devastated when the Apollo program ended in the early 1970s. Drawing on its immense aerospace heritage, local leaders were able to diversify the Cummins park and attract a variety of businesses.  In addition to numerous defense contractors and technology firms, Cummins is today home to a vibrant biotechnology industry. The park survived its own encounters with the Pentagon’s ongoing Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) initiatives.

About 10 years after the German rocket scientists arrived, Huntsville began a new relationship with the University of Alabama, establishing a small campus. Today, the University of Alabama at Huntsville (UAH) has grown to more than 7,500 students in 83 degree-granting programs that include world-class engineering and science programs in astrophysics, atmospheric science and aerospace engineering.

So what’s on deck, and what are the potential lessons for Indiana?

Obviously very successful, the Huntsville-based park and the city aren’t finished yet. A new generation of visionary leaders understands the urgent need for continuous improvement and diversification. They recently selected a firm to develop a comprehensive master plan. That plan, according to Koshut, is expected to boost the already-successful Cummins Research Park into a new and even more attractive posture.

Ironically, like the WestGate, some areas of the Cummins Research Park still are farmed for soybeans and other crops, still awaiting development. But Huntsville leaders don’t want to attract and establish just anybody on those virgin properties. They deliberately cultivate and choose industries and companies that will compliment and help grow the region.

So what might be Indiana’s take-aways to create high-impact opportunities? Here’s what’s needed: visionary and determined local leadership that has developed a solid university engagement, mixed in with a bit of good fortune and a deliberate development and execution of a focused and shared plan. As the famous saying goes: “Fortune favors the prepared mind.” Let’s be about it.

Ron Arnold is executive director of the Daviess County Economic Development Corporation.

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