Robert Quinn Q&A with incoming SCRA director

Robert Quinn

After more than a quarter-century working for the Battelle Memorial Institute, Robert Quinn is making a jump to the S.C. Research Authority to become its next executive director.

Quinn, who starts Aug. 1, has spent the last several years focused on economic development work in Asia, and he’s previously worked on technology commercialization — the process of finding ways to bring cutting-edge research to the market.

He headed up that commercialization work at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory — the Tennessee facility best-known for its work with nuclear energy and the atomic bomb — and for Ohio-based Battelle, the world’s largest research-and-development nonprofit. He’s also worked with Battelle’s investment arm, which works with startup companies.

Quinn, who lives in Summerville, has spent more than a decade in the Lowcountry after working on Project Seahawk, which aims to protect Charleston’s harbor.

As part of that work, Quinn said, he worked with SCRA first-hand.

Quinn spoke with The Post and Courier about his career and his goals as director of SCRA, the state-chartered agency tasked with boosting South Carolina’s high-tech sectors.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: Tell me about your career and how it connects to the work SCRA does.

A: Economic development, technology commercialization and investments working with early-stage companies — that’s exactly what I’ve been focusing on, and that’s exactly the core mission of SCRA.

So as the executive director position became available, knowing about the organization first-hand and seeing the alignment of what they were looking for in their executive director, it was an extremely exciting opportunity for me.

There are a lot of lessons learned in economic development and technology commercialization that one garners over decades of doing this — both good and bad.

You often learn your most valuable lessons from some of the mistakes that you and/or your staff make. The key is to take those lessons learned and apply them for the better in your next opportunity.

So this, I believe, allows me the opportunity to have a real impact on the economy of South Carolina. ... I’ve been focusing on improving the economies of places like China and Abu Dhabi, and that’s been very rewarding, but I would find it far more rewarding to be able to apply those talents and apply those lessons learned for the betterment of the economy in a state that I’ve been in for 12 years now.

Q: What are those lessons you’ve learned, that you might take from abroad and bring here?

A: One of the keys is to create an ecosystem for innovation among all of the major players.

This will be a major focus of this next chapter of SCRA. ... I believe that SCRA can play a substantiative role in being the facilitator for those relationships — relationships among the three major research universities, relationships between the universities and industry, partnerships and relationships between the startup companies — those companies we’re working with through the S.C. Launch program — and some of the core clusters of industry.

... By building the partnerships very early, the universities are able to develop technologies that are of the highest importance to industry (and) industry is able to leverage their resources to not only have internal (research and development) but have open innovation to be able to tap into the substantive resources of the universities.

Then the idea of allowing the early-stage companies to be able to be major contributors to the needs of major industry is another thing that we have facilitated in places like Singapore, in places like Japan.

... I mentioned the negative and positive lessons learned — you’re able to take those lessons and formalize them into specific processes that can be transferred over to SCRA to create greater efficiency in how we go about doing business.

Q: Are there areas in your experience with SCRA where you think the agency or the state in general could do better?

A: One area where they’ve really shined is the S.C. Launch program and the number of companies they have provided both financial support and mentoring to.

... On the other hand, one of the real gaps in the current ecosystem within the state, and everyone will tell you this, is the relative dearth of venture capital. ... I’d be getting those (venture capital) entities to engage first in terms of doing investment but with the eventual intention of getting them to have at a minimum a field office here in South Carolina. ... The next would be the engagement with the universities. I think they’ve done an admirable job to keep up with various individuals within the universities, but there’s certainly room for growth.

And that will be a major focus in terms of hiring in the near term and in terms of strategic focus, so that when the universities are developing technologies, SCRA can assist them in getting other sources of funding.

But very importantly, we can be the facilitator between the universities and industry so that the aforementioned needs (of industry) are being inserted into the innovation process as early as possible.

Q: SCRA is in the process of reorganizing to separate its government contracting arm, Advanced Technology International, from the rest of the agency. How do you plan to navigate that transition?

A: Thus far, from my still-outsider’s perspective, I think it’s off to a strong start with regards to people understanding their respective roles.

Certainly there will be a culture shift. I don’t view it to be a daunting one.

... But I would like to think that we’d still have strong ties with ATI in terms of co-location at the Summerville campus, and certainly there are personal relationships between the two organizations.

... But in terms of the core focus of those two parts of the organization, they are quite distinct and we are going to be creating an organizational culture specific to SCRA and our core mission.

Reach Thad Moore at 843-937-5703 or on Twitter @thadmoore.