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Building Design Contributes to Business Innovation Success

PORTALUNC Charlotte’s Partnership, Outreach, and Research to Accelerate Learning (PORTAL) building is a business incubator and accelerator as well as a corporate innovation center that offers resources, flexible workspace, mentoring, collaboration and research opportunities to industry-university partners. (Photo by Matthew Carbone)

PORTAL is where innovators go to hatch, nurture and launch new ideas and businesses.

Partnership, Outreach, and Research to Accelerate Learning, better known as PORTAL, is a $24-million, 96,000-square-foot business incubator and corporate innovation center that opened on the campus of UNC Charlotte in 2014. For early stage businesses, PORTAL offers a unique and flexible environment that encourages conversation and collaboration, access to university researchers and academics, business support services, and research partnership opportunities with mature and established companies. For UNC Charlotte, PORTAL increases the university’s capacity for classified research; brings together business pioneers, students and professors for networking and idea sharing; and promotes opportunities for the university to directly collaborate with industry and government. “When you lease an office space [in PORTAL], you get an entire university,” says Chip Yensan, Charlotte Research Institute associate director. 

Currently, 24+ entrepreneurial and early-stage businesses call PORTAL home. Several are associated with Ventureprise Inc., a regional business incubator and accelerator that was the facility’s first occupant. “As an incubator there is going to be regular turnover,” explained Jim Currie, PORTAL associate director. “We want young businesses to have success and grow out of the incubation space and into other space within PORTAL or elsewhere in the region. We are interested in preserving and nurturing the relationships with the university that develop here.”

The design of the building is instrumental in helping establish those relationships. A four-story atrium floods the facility with natural light and offers a “great sense of openness and exchange,” said Yensan. The “common and large open spaces, plus nooks and crannies, lend themselves exquisitely well to collaborative and creative conversation,” added Currie. Scalable office spaces enable businesses to expand or contract as needed, and the PORTAL café has become a neighborhood hub that attracts students, faculty and business people alike and encourages “robust interaction during the day,” said Yensan. PORTAL has also become a popular event space, hosting more than 50 major events within the past year that have included two hackathons attended by more than 150 computer programming and marketing enthusiasts, and an intern graduation ceremony hosted by Bank of America.

PORTALPORTAL is located on the campus of UNC Charlotte, an urban research institution with more than 27,000 students. “Our PORTAL tenants have access to all the university’s outstanding talent right at their doorstep. That is a wonderful value proposition,” said Chip Yensan, Charlotte Research Institute associate director. (Photo by Matthew Carbone)

The exterior of the building matches the traditional collegiate Georgian architecture of the campus, while the modern interior features “glass and daylight everywhere,” said architect Michael Barnes, vice president and Carolinas Division regional manager at LaBella Associates. PORTAL is a facility that “still holds true to university roots but is flexible and a fun place to work,” Barnes noted.


The traditional collegiate Georgian exterior belies the modern feel of the interior. LaBella Associates provided architectural services for PORTAL. McKim & Creed, Inc. furnished electrical engineering and Edifice, Inc. served as the contractor. Last month, PORTAL was honored with the 2015 Star Award (projects over $20 million) by the Construction Professionals of North Carolina. To earn the award, projects are evaluated on cost management, complexity, innovation and creativity, sustainability, and impact on the local community, among other things.  (Photo by Matthew Carbone)

The mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection (MEP/FP) systems accommodate the flexibility of the building and enhance energy efficiency, said Atul Nerurkar, PE, project manager with McKim & Creed. Electrical and communications wiring runs under raised floors and can be easily relocated when partition walls are repositioned to accommodate businesses with larger or smaller needs. LED lighting offsets the energy lost through the glass atrium, while daylighting allows lighting in certain areas of the building to be lowered or diffused.

Energy recovery air handlers reduce energy consumption for tempering the outside air, solar panels produce hot water for the café, and rainwater collected from the building roof is used for landscape irrigation. A special 10,000-square-foot classified research area occupies one floor of PORTAL and required independent IT, HVAC, security and backup power systems.

“The building is working marvelously. It’s functioning the way it was set up, and the light and the way people are exposed to each other facilitate interaction and a sense of community,” Currie said. Added Yensan, “Our vision was that, on any given day, you would have faculty, students, entrepreneurs and corporate innovators interacting all under the same roof, sharing ideas and generating lots of exciting concepts. And we see that every day.”