The park at auburn a community of bright ideas

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The Park at Auburn, a collaborative research ecosystem, is bringing together the brightest minds and most groundbreaking research to change our state, nation and world. With its own community of innovators working jointly to make a difference, Auburn is finding real-world solutions to some of society's toughest challenges.

Just a little over a decade ago, if you had zoomed in on an aerial map of what is now Devall Drive, just south of the Auburn University campus, you would have seen…nothing.

Jump to the present:  You are seeing The Park at Auburn, a collection of multi-level buildings with square footage in the tens of thousands, sprawling across 171 acres.

The latest addition: a 105,000-square-foot Research and Innovation Center, which opened in September.

People are often intrigued as they drive past, but wonder what exactly goes on inside.

Collaboration, innovation, knowledge, synergy, expertise, support — those are some the keywords you’ll hear when people talk about the park, which was established in 2007. But those who hear about it may wonder — what’s the context?

Soon, people will know. They will hear about The Park at Auburn as new strategies are put in play to further expand, diversify and rebrand. To outsiders, it will represent more than a group of impressive buildings.

Now, The Park, as it has rebranded itself, is truly in the game.

“We’re turning the next page in our development history,” said Bill Dean, who came on board in April 2020 as executive director of the Auburn Research and Technology Foundation,Foundation (ARTF). “We want to streamline the park’s relationships and partnerships, as there are so many technologies here to be developed.

Auburn University has recognized expertise in engineering, agriculture, veterinary medicine, forestry, animal science, aquaculture, chemistry, physics, biology and pharmaceuticals, along with a business school training entrepreneurs. We want to build an immensely collaborative research park where people from industry, academia, the private sector and government can work together through our technology resources and collaborate on solutions that will benefit the public.”

From the start, the park aimed to build a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem, merging research — with cutting-edge facilities and equipment and leading experts that put them to use — with businesses of all sizes to leverage collaborative research into real-world progress. The park continues to protect, commercialize and distribute what emerges from the Auburn knowledge base, making it accessible and meaningful.

“We’re going to be improving the internal technology process with our great faculty and students, so we are able to do more research and do it better,” Dean said. “We want to build a program to accelerate development into the market space.

“A big part of the process is collaborating with deans, associate deans and faculty across Auburn’s campus. The park’s staff will be learning from them to fill in any gaps to make the park more productive. One reason The Park flies under the radar is that people outside Auburn do not see or have not experienced the behind-the-scenes mechanisms.”

Those inner workings can elevate discovery. In the labs of the MRI Research Center, for example, experts in veterinary medicine, psychology, kinesiology, pharmacy, biological sciences and engineering regularly pool their resources and share research findings with one another.

It’s difficult for faculty or other investigators to conduct this level of research in silos — or in an individual college or department on the Auburn campus when trying to align with business needs, Dean said.

“Collaborations and partnerships are a better way to distinguish our technology resources. Collaborations don’t have to be so hard. Eliminate the pain points, communicate, articulate research strengths and use tailored services to help manage the process,” he added. “It just makes our technology development stronger, makes it more competitive and it ramps up market opportunities when there are more people making it happen.”

Joint research, astounding results

In April, as COVID-19 surged, Auburn molecular biologist Dr. Joanna Szluba-Solinska focused her research on SARS CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. She teamed with researchers from the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering on COVID-related projects. One involved determining whether different types of coronaviruses could be visually detected by observing changes in their spectra.

She discovered that a hyperspectral microscope that had been on the market since 2004 had just the right high-resolution capabilities she needed. That microscope technology was developed by Dr. Vitaly  Vodyanoy, an Auburn veterinary medicine professor, and then further developed and patented by CytoVita, Inc., a subsidiary company of Aetos Technologies, Inc., which is based in The Park.

CytoVita imaging technology has been installed in research laboratories around the world. Now, it could be a new tool in the battle against COVID-19.

It’s a story that began in The Park and came back around, this time for a new purpose.

The park is blazing a trail of even more innovation in the realm of health.

Health breakthroughs: Forging ahead

Health care organizations such as East Alabama Medical Center (EAMC) are expanding their presence in the park. EAMC’s partnership has grown from contracting for the use of scanners in the MRI Research Center to the planned summer opening of a freestanding emergency department and an ambulatory surgery center in an 80,000-square-foot health sciences facility. The Auburn Medical Pavilion operated by East Alabama Health will create opportunities for collaboration with Auburn and with the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine, also located in the park.

Health research and health care for human and animal populations converge in the park. During the day, human patients undergo diagnostic imaging at the MRI Research Center or visit the new offices of a local medical practice, Auburn Pediatric and Adult Medicine.  In the evenings, Auburn researchers conduct important work at the center. For example, psychology professor Dr. Jeffrey Katz uses MRI to understand cognition in Auburn’s Vapor Wake detection dogs — aiding his own research, but also advancing the work of scientists in the College of Veterinary Medicine.

Ready for action

At the park, new growth brings new priorities.

For example, assuring that there is adequate wet lab space for research.

These specially designed labs are key to stepping up the park’s research game and paving the way for collaboration with the private sector and non-business creations.

Another goal — on the dry side of research — is providing advanced makers’ spaces, where specialized equipment accommodates the work of experts in areas like additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing, as well as software development and other technologies that are reaching advanced stages of growth.

The grander goal: spread the word about the park far and wide. The emphasis: “Auburn is not only an R1 university — one of 131 in the U.S. listed for high levels of research — but also a public land-grant university whose mission is improving the lives of people,” Dean said.

“Advancing innovation through collaborations and partnerships at Auburn University will improve the quality of life of citizens not only in Alabama, but worldwide.”