By: Justin Berry Issue: Transformation Section: Academia
Building Utah’s Innovation Infrastructure
2010 study by the Kauffman Foundation ranked Utah as number one in patents per capita, prompting CNN Money to call the state “the hand’s down leader in inventiveness.” In 2012, the Milken Institute cited impressive results by the Salt Lake City, Ogden and Provo metro areas. All three climbed into the institute’s top 25 list of Best Performing Cities based on their highly diversified economies that include thriving medical device and software companies.
Utah has long been known as the Beehive State, and for good reason. With a strong industrious spirit and entrepreneurial drive, Utah is a hive of productivity. Transforming those traits into tangible economic development is not an easy task and takes years of planning and a willingness to lay the groundwork. Now, on the tails of the economic downturn, Utah is transitioning into a state rich with innovation, technology and robust industry, thanks to two related initiatives.
The initial planning and development of a long-term transformative plan began back in 2000, when then-Governor Michael Leavitt became concerned about a forecasted gap in the job market that presented a very large problem. The average wage in Utah was eroding in comparison to other states, but it was not that Utah lacked jobs—rather it lacked high-paying jobs. The governor identified high-tech jobs as the solution to this problem.
Leavitt began an effort to court high-tech firms to bring their operations to Utah. However, this was a slow process, which led to a new awareness that in order to support a high-tech economy, the state needed to develop a well-educated, high-tech workforce. The Governor’s Engineering Initiative was born from this need, and it was Leavitt’s plan to double the number of engineering and computer science students at Utah colleges and universities in just five years.
University of Utah (U of U) Dean of Engineering Richard Brown recalls Leavitt’s remarks at the dedication of the Warnock Engineering Building. “As he told the story, it was in a discussion with John Warnock, one of our Ph.D. alumni and a founder of Adobe software, that the governor became very aware of this need,” Brown said. “John told him, ‘Governor, if you’re serious about building a high-tech economy, you’d better do something about engineering education,’ so Governor Leavitt started the Engineering Initiative.”
The initiative focuses on recruitment, outreach and retention of students. Current university students work with high school classes to provide engineering-based activities and learning modules. Efforts are also made to help university students stay in engineering programs by offering advising, peer mentoring and activities to engage them both academically and socially. For prospective students, the university offers summer camps that focus on the core engineering programs and provide pre-engineering students the chance to work together to solve problems and experience various aspects of engineering firsthand. And at the U of U, Brown says they have increased the number of engineering graduates by 84 percent since the beginning of the initiative. “It’s necessary to have the right workforce in order to attract the companies here. We’ve seen time after time, the companies will go where the workforce is,” Brown said. “And as we attract industry, their demands for a more educated workforce just grow!”
The College of Engineering will graduate about 700 engineers and computer scientists this year. According to Brown, the students his college is now training will be uniquely positioned to take their place in the technology economy. About 100 undergraduate students per year and 100 graduate students at any given time will take classes or be doing research in the Nanofabrication Laboratory of the new James L. Sorenson Molecular Biotechnology Building. This 208,000-square-foot facility has an 18,000-square-foot clean room laboratory, with 6,000-square-feet of working space (class 100/1000/10k) adjacent to a 5,000-square-foot microscopy core.
“We have in our microscopy suite almost an exact copy of the equipment that is used at one of Utah’s leading semiconductor companies, IM Flash Technologies,” Brown said. “In addition to educating the engineers needed by such companies, we will work with Salt Lake Community College and Utah Valley University to train the microscopy technicians that they need. I’m convinced that one of the reasons Utah has come out of the current recession ahead of almost all other states is that we have a very healthy, diverse economy that is strong on high-tech.” As the engineering workforce grows, high-tech industry has provided high-paying jobs to those graduates. One of the leading technology companies in Utah, L-3 Communications West, claims that it has hired an engineer every day for the past five years. While large out-of-state companies such as eBay, Intel and Micron expanded into the state, Utah was nurturing start-ups for economic growth as well.
In an effort to increase the innovation capital of Utah, leaders from the business community came together with government officials and created the Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative (USTAR).
In March 2006, at the urging of then-Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. and Lt. Governor Gary Herbert, lawmakers passed legislation creating USTAR, a long-term, state-funded, industry-led agency positioned to help strengthen Utah’s knowledge economy. This measure drew from best practices of other states such as Georgia, Pennsylvania and Arizona and structured USTAR with three main elements.
First, USTAR provides funding that accelerates the ability of the U of U and Utah State University (USU) to recruit world-class researchers, specifically into high-growth focus areas such as energy and biomedical innovations. Second, the initiative enables the construction of two state-of-the-art interdisciplinary research and development facilities at the Salt Lake City and Logan campuses. Third, USTAR operates outreach teams across the state to help entrepreneurs and existing companies commercialize new technology and access the resources available at higher education institutions.
USTAR Executive Director Ted McAleer is excited about the unique opportunities the program offers. “One of the things that Utah is well known for is the entrepreneurial nature of our people,” he said. “We have a lot of start-up companies, and a lot of new ideas being generated in Utah. USTAR is like a fuel additive that makes a strong engine run faster.” It is the collaboration and focus on innovation between the universities around Utah and the industry partners that has come together as part of the USTAR program. And it is this combination of facilities, human capital and entrepreneurial nature that sets Utah apart from other states.
“The University of Utah is first in the nation for starting companies based on university research,” McAleer said. “This is the second year in a row the university has beat schools like MIT and Columbia, and both BYU and USU are highly ranked as well. It is this entrepreneurial spirit that is making Utah the innovation nerve center of the nation.” With the new USTAR center at the U of U joining its 118,000-square-foot sister facility already in operation at USU in Logan, the ability to bring in research “All-Stars” is fulfilling the objective to become a world-class research destination. John White, the executive director of the Brain Institute at the U of U, is one of these researchers. “There are superb opportunities for industry collaborations,” White said. “The people who are in this building are USTAR faculty, and we came here specifically because we were intrigued and excited by the idea of working more closely with industry partners.”
White understands the opportunity to join forces with industry partners and develop start-up companies. “USTAR is not just about basic science, USTAR is about taking cutting-edge science and engineering, and moving it out into the world,” he said. “It is our charge from the state, and we need industry’s help, so I think the whole design of the program and the building stand as an invitation for industry partners to come in and work with us.”
With all of the advances being made to help secure Utah’s economic future, it is vital that these new discoveries and scientific innovations make the jump to industry. Bringing in top researchers and providing state-of-the-art facilities is only a portion of the equation. It is vital to transition these into production to help build the Utah tax base and economic impact. Bryan Ritchie, executive director of the Technology Commercialization Office (TCO) at the U of U, realizes the importance of taking discoveries and getting them into practical use. “Here at the U of U, the specific approach for USTAR is to bring those resources and researchers together, put them all in one place, have them fertilize one another’s ideas in terms of what we can accomplish across departmental silos, and see where that can go in terms of commercialization.”
It has always been the goal to make these transitions into the marketplace and provide new jobs for the state. “We start moving this technology closer to the commercial market, and a lot of that work will come back and be done here,” Ritchie said.
By leveraging the strengths of the University’s TCO in tandem with USTAR’s outreach resources, researchers who aren’t full-blown entrepreneurs can still contribute to the commercialization effort. Miriah Meyer, a USTAR assistant professor of computer science at the U of U, identifies herself as one of these individuals, admitting she is not at all entrepreneurial. The USTAR program helps those like Meyer transition their ideas to industry.
“The commercialization office and USTAR are incredible resources,” she said. “Having so much support and people who are eager and excited to work with me to bring the work I’m doing to a much broader audience, when I don’t have the skill set to do that, is amazing. It’s an incredible opportunity.”
Collaboration is the heart of the USTAR program—not only between the various disciplines represented by researchers and faculty, but between the academic and business worlds as well. The U of U’s Utah Nanofab, for example, works on a regular basis with more than 40 companies, and the university’s Energy and Geoscience Institute has more than 60 supporting industry partners. USU’s commercialization office routinely solicits industry feedback on its USTAR efforts as well.
Associate Vice President of Research at the U of U Cynthia Furse pointed out, “Industry sponsored research is really critical to our research mission. It is particularly important because it takes the exciting, fascinating things that we discover and turns them into something real that impacts our society, our people and our local economy.” “The combination of the USTAR and Engineering Initiatives to transform our state is unique,” McAleer said. “Through the foresight and dedication of state government and business leaders, we are simultaneously powering up our human capital, our innovation infrastructure, and the workforce of the future. You combine that with already strong spirit of creative entrepreneurism and a business-friendly government, and you have a recipe for long-term growth and success.”