Innovation is one of those peculiar words that can mean very different things to different people. But we’ll use it anyway, in pointing to Utah as a good example of a state that used the budget stabilization portion of the stimulus in a very interesting way: to push a science and technology innovation program.
The Utah Science Technology and Research (USTAR) program actually began before the federal stimulus, back in 2006, when the state funded investments at the University of Utah and Utah State University to recruit world-class researchers. These hard-to-find men and women work in state-of-the-art science and technology research facilities, in an effort to make the kinds of advances that lead to commercial success.
When the economy turned sour, state leaders saw that “there were probably bargains to be had in trying to recruit some of these researchers to USTAR,” according to the state’s planning coordinator, Mike Mower. But you still need money – even to buy a bargain. And the state used some $28 million of its state fiscal stabilization funds in this way.
“Think about it as traditional infrastructure versus innovation infrastructure,” says USTAR Executive Director Ted McAleer. “If I build a new bridge I’m creating construction jobs very quickly, but what we already had was a process in place to create innovation infrastructure.” In addition to bringing grants into the labs, a study at the University of Utah recently calculated that every $1 million of new research investment creates 20 jobs.
USTAR researchers are working in multi-billion growth markets: nanotechnology, biomedical devices, digital media, medical imaging, and alternative energy technologies. McAleer also devoted $3 million toward finding and funding new opportunities across Utah, via technology-commercialization grants. These grants, typically about $30,000 apiece, help take ideas that have been patented and turn them into money makers. McAleer has a technology outreach team scouring the state’s colleges and universities for innovations that have commercial potential and searching, even advertising, for commercial partners to make them successful.