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Cooper to ECU: I'll tell your story of innovation

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Ron Mitchelson guides Gov. Roy Cooper as he wears a virtual reality mask to see what it's like to be inside of an Osprey plane during his visit to ECU's Innovation and Design Lab Thursday, April 20, 2017.

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Michael Abramowitz

Friday, April 21, 2017

N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper likes the way East Carolina University’s educational and community development strategies fit his own goals for rural economic growth, so he came to Greenville on Thursday to see for himself what eastern North Carolina does so well.

Cooper met with ECU administrators and faculty of the Office of Innovation and Economic Development at its Innovation Design Lab on Jarvis Street. The IDL brings together industrial design, business, engineering and graphic design applications to produce new solutions to complex product development challenges. It is the place where risk-taking is encouraged, and innovation is set in motion. 

Cooper, a Nash County native, said ECU has a long tradition of making a real difference in people’s lives, particularly those in this part of the state.

“I’m here today to learn what ECU is doing to affect everyday people’s health and education, but also to promote some ideas that I have,” the first-term Democrat governor said. “I know that entrepreneurship and innovation are ways to help revitalize eastern North Carolina.”

During a roundtable discussion, ECU Provost Ron Mitchelson told Cooper about the university’s mission to be a national model for student success, public service and regional transformation through the use of innovative learning strategies. Mitchelson stressed the diversity of the university’s student population. He told Cooper that ECU leads the University of North Carolina system in graduating students from Tier 1 and Tier 2 distressed counties (1,900 last year), producing the most newly licensed teachers, nurses and allied health professionals in the state.

“When you think about rural issues and solutions, we want you to think about East Carolina University,” Mitchelson told Cooper.

Ted Morris, associate vice chancellor of engagement, innovation and economic development, and IDL Director Wayne Godwin briefed Cooper on the Office of Innovation and Economic Development’s mission and operations. As a strategic focal point for external organizations to access the university's intellectual and physical assets, the OIED provides information, technical assistance and problem-solving services to help implement economic development plans and programs in the region.

“Economic and community development is a full-on contact sport,” Morris told Cooper. “That’s the only way it happens. If you look at any area of intensive cultural and economic activity, you will see that they’ve learned how to harness and tap into the combination of talent, innovation and place.”

Cooper was particularly drawn to the IDL’s innovative work in the areas of health care, especially military health care training and its partnership with the military hospital at Camp LeJeune and others. He toured the center’s model of an MV22 Osprey plane interior where military medical transporters can train under simulated on-board conditions and through the use of virtual reality technology.

“We truly believe that we have an opportunity to make eastern North Carolina the hub of east coast military health care training, just as Los Angeles is to the west coast,” Morris told the governor.

Cooper promoted his new proposal, called NC Invents, a $10 million investment program to help universities’ innovators and entrepreneurs get their ideas to market more quickly.

“When I talk to CEOs, the first question they ask me is not what our corporate tax rate is, but whether we have the people ready to perform the jobs they create,” he said. “That’s why we need to invest in education.”

Speaking with reporters after his tour, Cooper said that many state legislators do not understand the value of rural economic development and often do not recognize the value that the people of eastern North Carolina bring to the state’s economy.

“Having grown up here, I will continue to emphasize that,” he said. “Our rural counties don’t have some of the (advantages) that our urban areas have. But rural areas often have things that urban areas don’t have, like a more peaceful life, a good place to raise a family and opportunities for jobs that they don’t have in urban areas. We don’t have to compete with urban areas, but leverage off of one another.”

ECU Honors College Dean David White said he was pleased by Cooper’s understanding of the university’s efforts and the challenges it faces in building its rural economic and community development programs.

“I think Governor Cooper really gets the rural perspective and realizes the impact ECU has on eastern North Carolina,” White said. “He understands that we have to invest in talent and innovation opportunities. I will tell all our honors students that he likes the way we’re putting this bright interdisciplinary group of students to work on some of these big problems our region sees. I’ll tell them the governor is expecting big things from them, and I guarantee you they’ll step up to the plate and hit a home run for him.”

Contact Michael Abramowitz at mabramowitz@reflector.com or 252-329-9507.

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