STAR Park aims to spark tech growth in San Marcos

Texas State University facility offers support and laboratory space for emerging businesses

Open since November, Texas State University's research and business development campus, STAR Park, is nearing capacity and preparing to expand on its 38-acre site in San Marcos.

Executive Director Steve Frayser said he envisions the Science, Technology and Advanced Research Park as a catalyst where academic research and the private sector can interact, sparking the development of a high-tech industry in San Marcos and furthering the university's efforts to grow as a research institution.

"We're part of the next generation of the economy," Frayser said. "People will be able to drive by here in San Marcos and point to an area that's got a congregation of tech-based companies who are creating things that solve problems and make life better for people."

Expansion plans

Frayser said STAR Park will eventually fill up to about 260,000 square feet of research and business space on Hunter Road at McCarty Lane. The park's first building, STAR One, is a 20,000-square-foot structure featuring wet labs and clean space for businesses and students to work with polymers and nanomaterials. He said the park plans to add about 16,000 square feet of labs and research space in 2014.

"The market is good," Frayser said. "We're the only game in Central Texas right now for chemical laboratory space. Nobody else has any that's available for general use by companies."

STAR Park's first tenant, MicroPower Global, is working with Texas State professors and students to produce a semiconductor that converts heat into electricity. The company is seeking its first customers so it can ramp up test production at its labs in STAR One.

"We're ready to take the next step, and STAR One allows me to have the space and equipment to take our first pilot orders so we can start a revenue stream," said Thomas Zirkle, MicroPower's chief technology officer.

Zirkle said his company has 12 full-time employees and interns in San Marcos and will add about 25 positions within six months of beginning production.

Working with Texas State

Other STAR One tenants include a defense contractor and a nanotechnology company trying to find an affordable way to create graphene, a type of graphite so thin it only exists on a two-dimensional plane.

The park provides the companies with laboratory and collaboration space as well as resources such as Texas State's Small Business Development Center and the Office of Commercialization and Industrial Relations. In return, the businesses must pay rent and maintain a connection to Texas State, whether by hiring students as interns or licensing the rights to discoveries or inventions created on campus.

Many research universities train doctoral students for academic careers, Frayser said, but 80 percent of those students eventually find jobs in industry. Frayser said STAR Park will prepare them for careers in industry.

"If we're really successful with this program, we're going to have a national model of turning out people who either decide to start their own companies, or they're going to go into industry and ... already have a mindset that, 'I'm here to make important contributions, but I also understand the context by which I do that,'" Frayser said. "The 20 percent who stay on in academia will bring an understanding of not just the theory behind the science but the real application of the science they experienced."

Aruna Dedigama was a postdoctoral student at Texas State when MicroPower Global hired him in February as a senior staff engineer. Now he works at the company's STAR One lab building machines that grow crystals for use as semiconductors.

"Most universities purely focus on academic affairs and scientific stuff like finding new research, but this program is a little bit different because it is specifically built for industrial purposes," Dedigama said. "It was really, really easy for me to move from academic to industrial environments."

Growing companies

Texas State, the city of San Marcos and the federal Economic Development Administration funded the $7 million development of STAR One. The park's day-to-day operations are paid for by a combination of tenant fees and university funding.

The companies at STAR Park sign one-month leases and can remain at the park until they outgrow the facilities, go public, are acquired by a larger company or fail to hit milestones established by their lease agreements.

Eventually, Frayser said, STAR Park will draw private investment that helps secure Texas State's financial future—and reduces the need for tuition increases—amid cuts to state and federal funding.

"If we don't become more relevant to industry in a meaningful way, then our future is fairly constrained," he said. "That's where our growth opportunity is."

Job creation goal

U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, the chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, said STAR Park will attract researchers and businesses from throughout Texas, fostering scientific discoveries and technological developments that will ultimately lead to job creation.

"It provides an area where university and private-sector specialists can come together to develop new technologies and innovative ideas," Smith said in a prepared statement. "STAR Park is an investment for the college and community that will be paying back significant dividends for generations to come."

STAR Park to host symposium Sept. 5

Texas State University's STAR Park and the Greater San Marcos Partnership are holding a symposium to focus on the park's role in facilitating technology, research and industry. U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, delivers the keynote address. Tours of STAR One, STAR Park's first facility, follow the symposium. 8 a.m.–1:15 p.m. $75. Embassy Suites Hotel, Spa & Conference Center, 1001 E. McCarty Lane, San Marcos. 512-393-3400. www.greatersanmarcostx.com

STAR Park, 3055 Hunter Road, San Marcos, 512-245-7827, www.txstate.edu/sc