The Pearl – An Intersection of Knowledge and Innovation

The Pearl – An Intersection of Knowledge and Innovation

“The Pearl” innovation district will break ground later this year. Once complete, it will serve as a mixed-use development that will marry education, research and entrepreneurship. Learn more about how The Pearl will create opportunity for the Charlotte community and beyond.

In what was perhaps a precursor of things to come, entrepreneurs, corporate citizens and representatives of leading nonprofit groups gathered in one spot Thursday, May 19, to dream about the future at the first-ever Charlotte Innovation Summit. They gathered at Camp North End – where innovations once came to life in the form of Model A and Model T Ford automobiles at the historic site. 

Later this year, Atrium Health will break ground on a new innovation district called “The Pearl.” Upon completion, it will convene many of the same types of perspectives, with a special eye towards research and development in the life-sciences space. A four-person panel from Atrium Health presented to a small crowd at the summit, providing a glimpse of what is to come as the campus of Wake Forest University School of Medicine Charlotte is constructed within the heart of The Pearl. 

Hillary Crittendon, Dr. Angela Sharkey, Todd Dunn, Collin Lane

(Left to right): Hillary Crittendon, head of commercial development for Atrium Health; Dr. Angela Sharkey, senior associate dean for undergraduate medical education for Atrium Health and Wake Forest University School of Medicine; Todd Dunn, vice president of innovation for Atrium Health; Collin Lane, senior vice president of the facilities management group for Atrium Health.

While it will certainly be the crown jewel of The Pearl, “it’s not just the medical school,” says Collin Lane, senior vice president of the facilities management group for Atrium Health and one of the key leaders advancing the plans for the district. “Academics and research go hand-in-hand. It’s about what we can do beyond buildings. It’s about creating a ‘knowledge community’ that creates a talent pipeline and creates an ecosystem for collaboration and innovation.” 

As part of the approach, Collin says there will be outreach programs put into place with local schools, introducing students at a young age to the excitement and benefits that accompany academics, research and entrepreneurship. He notes higher education opportunities will be plentiful – with nursing programs through Carolinas College of Health Sciences, the Wake Forest University School of Business and the brand-new Wake Forest University School of Professional Studies co-locating in the education building within The Pearl. Other regional colleges universities are also lining up to be part of Charlotte’s next big thing. 

“It’s important to have this type of diversity in academic perspectives,” adds Collin.

When it seats its first class in 2024, Wake Forest University School of Medicine Charlotte will have 48 students per year, per class, and is scheduled to grow to 100 per class. It will feature a two-floor experiential learning center which will include such things as a mock doctor’s office, where future physicians will work side-by-side with nursing students to simulate treatments and order prescriptions to be filled by pharmacy students down the hall. There will also be a staged home environment, where home health care can be simulated with such things as patient falls. 

“When graduates get their degrees, they will be ready to practice and provide the highest quality of care,” says Dr. Angela Sharkey, senior associate dean for undergraduate medical education for Atrium Health and Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

The creation of a second campus of Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Charlotte is expected to draw new, additional research and development funding, with an estimated 40 new investigators attached to the Charlotte school. 

“Research happens because people remain curious and try to look for solutions or data related to a question,” adds Angela. “Our learner pipeline will develop students who will become medical professionals, but also partner with other disciplines like IT, finance and entrepreneurship. The research we conduct at the School of Medicine and within the district will result in opportunity for start-ups.” 

But, cautions Todd Dunn, vice president of innovation for Atrium Health, while the goal is creating a space that can nurture innovation, “it’s not enough to just have an idea. It is essential that those bringing ideas forward have a relentless understanding of the problem to be solved and back that up with a business model that can prove how your concept will work and change outcomes.”  

But the space is designed to bring those types of ideas and business plans into reality. In an innovation district such as this, there is a collision that occurs between the idea-person and the entrepreneur. “By providing access to a team-based, collaborative environment, it opens a host of ideas and opportunities,” notes Collin. “It creates unintentional, collaborative instances – maybe even with someone who is a student and just getting started – and, often times, this can lead to great outcomes. 

In addition to its leadership with the medical school and role in spearheading portions of the development, Collin says Atrium Health has three additional objectives for its efforts with The Pearl: do Tier I lending for minority businesses; start its own venture capital fund with a not-for-profit approach to help seed start-ups; and help access research funding supporting businesses in the innovation district. 

“Education – and academic medicine, in particular – attracts industry,” says Collin. By fostering engagement in research, development and entrepreneurship at an early age and standing up a top-flight medical school surrounded by a district and regional commitment to innovation, “all of these ingredients come together to create a great opportunity.” 

“The Pearl will be the front door for innovation as well as a meeting place where the community can interact,” says Hillary Crittendon, head of commercial development for Atrium Health and also one of the leaders on the innovation district project. “It will draw people into the area with its open access, free co-working space and dining amenities. We intend to create a neighborhood that connects with the people and the history of the surrounding area and be a place people can come and find a new reason to learn and to innovate.”  

The Pearl and Wake Forest University School of Medicine Charlotte will break ground later this year. Developed in partnership between Atrium Health and Wexford Science & Technology, Phase I of the innovation district is currently scheduled to open in 2025, with more than 700,000 square feet of space. It will be located near the current intersection of Baxter and McDowell streets in Midtown Charlotte and eventually become a mixed-use development featuring office, lab, retail, residential – including affordable housing – community gathering and academic spaces. 

Over the next 15 years, The Pearl and its tenants are projected to create more than 5,500 onsite jobs – 40% of which are not expected to require a college degree – and more than 11,500 jobs, in total, in the Charlotte community. 

For more information on Charlotte’s new innovation district, visit

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