Saturday, May 31, 2008

Utah Gets It

I attended the luncheon and keynote speaker at Kickstand's Idavation event, a gathering of inventors, entrepreneurs, investors and service providers, this past Thursday. Candidates and elected officials were scarce, though Boise Mayor Dave Bieter was there to greet the conference attendees and talk a bit about what Boise is doing to support entrepreneurialism and innovation.

Bieter was followed by Don Dietrich, director of the Idaho Department of Commerce. After Mayor Bieter had spoken of the "doorbelling" he does--visiting local businesses and learning about their needs, hopes, plans and gripes--Dietrich noted that he did the same, though he then explained that doesn't make house calls (businesses have to come see him in his office). Dietrich seemed defensive: at least four different times, he assured the audience that Idaho government and Gov. Otter are listening to them, seemingly aware that many in the room had long ago concluded just the opposite.

Dietrich was followed by Brian Cummings, Executive Director of the Technology Commercialization Office at University of Utah. Cummings rattled off an extraordinary track record of success at attracting private and public research dollars, facilitating tech commercialization (he rejects the term "tech transfer"), providing services to start-ups, growing technology clusters, and increasing the number of start-ups resulting from partnerships with the university. By many measures, Utah seems to be doing this better than most places in the country. A few key indicators:
  • Commercial sponsored research (when companies pay the university to do research) went from $16.5M in 2006 to $38.2M in 2008.
  • New inventors went from 10 in 2004 to 70 in 2007.
  • Number of start-ups went from 3 in 2004 to 24 in 2008 (the national average is 2.8 companies per university).
  • 4 new angel funds have emerged in Salt Lake City in the last two years.
If Cummings has made U of U into a major league player, Idaho, it would seem, is playing at a junior varsity level at best. Cummings mentioned that the university convinced the Utah Legislature to invest $375 million in the tech commercialization efforts--money that would be spent on building a facility to house research and innovation efforts and attracting world-class inventors. Idaho comes nowhere near making such investments. During the Q&A, a participant suggested asked Cummings how they got the Legislature to support and invest in tech commercialization, adding that Idaho legislators don't seem to get it. Cummings responded that the university president did an amazing job of conveying value--couching the program in terms of industry creation and job growth.

As a legislator, I will make the case to my colleagues that these sorts of investments produce real returns and are imperative if we are to remain competitive with other states and countries around the world that are attempting to lure the very same innovators and entrepreneurs. Utah's example offers much for our universities and Legislature to learn and emulate.

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