North Carolina’s ascension from its agrarian roots to one of the nation’s — and world’s — most important centers of innovation, technology, industry and research has been nothing short of astonishing. Once the nation’s 49th-ranked state economically, North Carolina now ranks 5th. Companies ranging from incubator start-ups to Fortune 100 giants continue to stream into the big three business megacenters — Greater Charlotte, the Research Triangle and Piedmont Triad — with no end in sight.
How did this former poverty-stricken state of tobacco, cotton, food crops and not much else transform so completely into such a vibrant hub, and an employment hotbed for everyone from new college graduates to white-collar executives and some of the world’s most renowned life sciences and medical researchers?
Within the answer lies a blueprint for creating a business environment that covers all the bases. North Carolina combined growing university-based research and work programs, highly beneficial incentives and tax abatements, and the willingness to open up to new types of industry with a top-to-bottom government focus on innovation, technology and job creation.
The state and its various business hubs packaged this with the stunning natural beauty, moderate year-round weather and tourist havens that lie from the Smoky Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean, promoted the state through sports events (the Duke-North Carolina basketball rivalry being the biggest) and an ever-growing golf footprint. The state put the icing on the cake with lifestyle, its buildout incentives and home prices that made it very hard to say “No”.
When the businesses arrived and/or expanded, the people came: from 1950 to 2020, the population in the 16-county Research Triangle area, centered by Raleigh and Durham, jumped from 350,000 to nearly 2.1 million. The Research Triangle Park was the magnet that drew everyone into the state. It began with the vision of Gov. Luther Hodges in the 1950s, a collaboration between Duke, North Carolina, and North Carolina State, the campuses of which all border the park.
The Research Triangle we know today took firm root in 1965 when IBM built a 600,000 square-foot facility for its 360 computer. Within the next decade, Chemstrand Burroughs Wellcome, Northern Telecom and others moved in. The park’s reputation for innovation was fully apparent by the early 1980s: IBM developed the UPC Barcode and Scanner; Burroughs created AZT, the drug that stopped the death march of HIV/AIDs; and Chemstrand was into its fourth generation of Astroturf.
Today, the Research Triangle Park is home to more than 300 companies employing 55,000 people, including American Airlines, Bank of America, Caterpillar, Cisco Systems, Dell EMC, Delta Electronics, DuPont, GlaxoSmithKline, General Electric, Nvidia, Verizon and many, many more. And that’s just one of the three cogs that are driving North Carolina’s economy and business presence through the 2020s.
Once solely an agricultural and ag services economy, North Carolina now brings together global footprints in aerospace & defense, advanced manufacturing, automotive, truck and heavy machinery, biotech and pharmaceuticals, business & financial services, energy, food processing & manufacturing, IT, life sciences, plastics & chemicals, textiles, and tourism. The $56.4 billion drug and pharmaceutical presence is #3 in the nation, and research, testing and medical labs rank fifth in America. All in all, life science transactions alone add up to more than $100 billion in sales from North Carolina.
And it keeps growing. In March, the Research Triangle opened the Lilly Science and Technology Center, its new hub for biotech and IT training on the RTP campus of Wake Forest University — one of 20 colleges and universities partnering with business for research and workforce development, a great way to ensure quality employees for generations to come. In addition to directly contributing $1.1 million to the new center, Lilly has committed to a $1.4 billion expansion in business development in North Carolina in the next two years.
North Carolina’s innovation and technology presence is hot and is going to stay as hot as the coastal summers.
How Fritsch USA Creates Tomorrow’s Applications and Solutions
Melissa Fauth and her team walked into a genesis situation. When the century-old German manufacturer Fritsch International hired her in 2014, she left a multi-billion dollar firm not knowing what to expect. Two years later they named her as president and CEO of U.S. operations, Fritsch established a U.S. base in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, and a riveting journey in materials science, micromilling, collaboration, research and groundbreaking product development was underway.
“I began by supporting work with U.S. distribution,” said Fauth. “However, it was evident that we didn’t have a direct link between sales, distribution and trends, or what Fritsch brings to long-term relationships, like application development with collaboration that results in whatever the client needs — from whatever material they’re working with.
“I was very familiar with the Research Triangle. Between the universities, research centers and businesses ranging from startups to longstanding organizations, plus the close proximity to a [South Carolina] logistics company that also works with BMW, we had quicker transit time [for products from Germany], and better overall costs and expenses. Add in how family-friendly North Carolina is, and it was an easy decision for Fritsch to set up here in the emerging Chatham Park Development,” she added.
Specializing in manufacturing of application-based laboratory instruments and evolving client products and solutions through micromilling processes, Fritsch works from its Pittsboro, NC base with all industries from — electronics to automotive materials, hemp to feed crops and meat processing, pharmaceuticals to mining, aerospace, energy and everything in between. They utilize 15 different instrument technologies and 8,000 SKU items that they can configure — to grind material for quality or RoHS testing, or to recycle and reclaim — and to create new material solutions beyond what clients, in many cases, never before considered possible in their own labs. They work with universities, government, as well as private research and quality labs, their own global laboratory professionals, government agencies and private industry in a far-flung collaboration that benefits all, and which the public rarely sees. They are creating tomorrow’s industrial solutions, innovating and providing solutions on the spot.
“It’s really fun, and we establish great working partnerships with clients,” Fauth said. “Everyone is excited about the groundbreaking work they’re doing. Even with NDAs in place, generally speaking, there are aspects of milling processes and its applications that can be shared across industries, between institutions and companies, to help each other in different ways. One project combines collective experience from Fritsch, shared research input from NASA and Los Alamos Engineers, and a battery company, to achieve an objective that the battery company wasn’t otherwise able to do prior to implementing these instrument technologies and parameters.”
Another Fritsch esteemed project is its collaboration with the Curtis Hill Team of NASA’s Marshall Center to figure out a solution for the International Space Station: how to create needed materials or use instruments with limited power-generating ability in orbit?
“There is a need to sinter materials for use in their work,” Fauth explained. “In order to sinter something in a very high-temp furnace, they wouldn’t have the power up there. They found that by using a (micro)mill like our Pulverisette 7 premium line, or our scaled-up Pulverisette 5 premium line, they were able to get particles significantly smaller and more homogeneous, packed in a different way that was more advantageous, using less power. In putting different elemental products and compounds together and running them in the mill, they’re able to create new materials in a much more beneficial way. This led to new applications we’re working together on, like one for Mars with materials for 3D printing.
“For me, for us all, it’s been an honor to work with NASA and our National Labs; I never could have imagined that. Nor could I have imagined them coming to me and saying, ‘This solution exceeds anything we’ve tried before.’ That means a lot.”
Fritsch has many stories like this — and many more to come. But for Fauth and her team, it’s the big picture that creates one of the most important next-gen work teams in the Research Triangle.
“We get to help people with real-world problems, real-world developments, and reaching the next level in our communities, our societies, and our technology in both earth and space,” she said. “It’s super fulfilling for all of us, super meaningful. None of us have had this experience at any other place we’ve worked.”
Vegetable, Animal and Mineral: North Carolina’s Economy Has it All
Vast lithium and other mineral deposits are the largely unsung heroes of North Carolina’s robust economy.
North Carolina is known as the Silicon Valley of the East by many due to the emergence of the Research Triangle — a common nickname for the metropolitan area in the Piedmont region of North Carolina anchored by the cities of Raleigh and Durham and the town of Chapel Hill. It is also home to three major research universities: North Carolina State University, Duke University, and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, respectively.
According to the 2022 North Carolina Tech Association industry report, the tech industry contributes over 20% to the overall state employment. The state is continuing to grow in many key metrics, placing fourth in STEM programs and ranking in the top 15 states in percentage of women in the tech industry, percentage of change in STEM education program completions, state spending per student for higher education, start-ups from universities and tech industry employment growth.
North Carolina is also in the unique position of operating at both ends of the technology production line. While STEM graduates fresh out of university are funneling into companies like Altaro, Cloudpay and Grail, mining communities west of the Research Triangle are providing the rare minerals needed to power the latest smartphone filled with all the revolutionary apps we couldn’t live without, as well as machinery and lithium batteries for EVs.
North Carolina’s varied and complex geology is reflected in the diversity of its mineral industry. Long established production of a variety of industrial minerals including feldspar, mica, lithium and pyrophillite allow the state to maintain a position in the top 21 mineral producers by value in the nation.
“Typically, North Carolina’s annual mineral production exceeds $500 million dollars,” according to North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality.
Lithium is a soft, silvery-white alkali metal mined from pegmatite and recovered from the mineral spodumen, both of which are abundant in the mountains of west North Carolina. The industrial mineral is crucial to the production of electric vehicles — and anything that requires a lithium-ion battery.
While lithium mines shut down in the state in the 1980s due to sources from Bolivia, Chili and Nevada being available at a lower cost, North Carolina may soon see the substantial deposits of the precious mineral fueling the region’s economy once again.
“Those resources in Nevada and South America are reaching their maximum reduction rates,” said David Miller, state mining specialist for North Carolina’s Department of Enivornmental Quality. “So with the boom in lithium, they’re coming back to the lithium spodumene, which North Carolina and South Carolina are blessed with a rich belt of.”
Lithium conversion plants are still continuing to operate in the state, however.
“The conversion of brine to metal is occurring in North Carolina as it always has,” said Miller. “Albermarle Lithium never shut down that process. The conversion of spogemene to the lithium substrate is not currently occurring in North Carolina. This is what these companies are exploring.”
Restarting lithium mines would create much needed national and global supply, but the initial cost of getting the process moving is a significant one.
“To my way of thinking, it would be a very large capital investment made in these regions of North Carolina,” said Miller. “You know the old adage that money multiplies by three times when you invest it in industry; the numbers have been kicked around for what it’s gonna cost to start these plants. It would be a significant economic impact on North Carolina.”
Despite this, Miller is optimistic about lithium’s potential to further increase North Carolina’s booming economy in the near future.
“The lithium industry has the potential of becoming a huge industry in North Carolina,” said Miller. “It’s not going to happen overnight, but it’s a world class deposit. As long as there’s a price that can meet the cost, they will probably be buying lithium for years until they find whatever the next big metal is.”
North Carolina’s Minerals Fuel Our Industries
Lithium is far from the only abundant mineral in North Carolina crucial to the tech and other industries. Quartz, a naturally occurring form of silicon, is used in integrated circuits (ICs). If you apply an alternating voltage to a crystal, it causes mechanical vibrations. The cut and the size of the quartz crystal determine the resonant frequency of these vibrations or oscillations. Thus, it generates a constant signal, according to escomponents.com. ICs can be used for a variety of purposes including amplifiers, video processors, computer memory, switches, and microprocessors.
North Carolina also boasts the largest phosphate mining operation in the country, according to Miller, and has a robust pyrophyllite mining industry.
Pyrophyllite is a high alumina mineral that, in North Carolina, occurs exclusively within hydrothermally altered felsic volcanic rocks of the Carolina Slate belt, and is used as an aluminum filler and in continuous casting — a manufacturing process that allows metals and metal alloys to be shaped then solidified without interruption.
The Crown Jewel
“Of course, the real crown jewel is the gem industry,” Miller said.
Amethyst, aquamarine, emerald, hiddenite, ruby and sapphire are among a few of the gems that lure collectors from around the world to visit North Carolina. While some discoveries are due to industrial mining activities, many are the result of hobbyist gem and specimen mining, according to the Aurora Fossil Museum. The plethora of diverse gems has supported a continuous tourist industry that attracts established gem collectors and inspires students to become passionate about geology.
“We’ve probably got about 12 gym operations,” said Miller. “There are plenty of gem mines out there that will be more than happy to let you for pan for emeralds and sapphires and all those good things. There’s a very nice sapphire deposit west of Winston-Salem.”
North Carolina’s economy has undergone a major shift in the last few decades from mainly agricultural, to the eastern tech beacon of the country. Yet, throughout the changing tides of industry, the state has quietly been providing the resources for every industry across the board — not least of which being tech. And soon, the state could release its vast reserves of lithium, a move that would see its economy skyrocket over the coming years.