CTPost 12/23/19: The University of Connecticut is aiming to increase commercialization of research, support startups and increase entrepreneurship under a plan that includes a multi-million dollar faculty recruitment effort and new programs at the Stamford campus.
In a draft strategic plan and a proposal for an “Academic Entrepreneurship” initiative, both obtained through a public records request, officials outlined their strategies to turn UConn into a leading institution in “technological innovation and entrepreneurship for economic and social benefit.”
The university wants to pursue opportunities “in areas like Biomedical, Digitalization, Materials, AgBio, Software, and Industry 4.0,” and specifically envisions growth in data science, where UConn sees a chance “to become a research leader and a commercialization power in this space.”
It’s fueled by a charge from the state legislature to recruit and hire faculty focused on commercialization or on “societal needs,” to build “a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship” at all UConn campuses and to facilitate “entrepreneurial relationships” with other colleges and universities.
Officials haven’t released any budget details on the plan, which Vice President for Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship Radenka Maric said is still being finalized. Some of it can be achieved through prioritization of existing resources and efforts, she said, while others will require substantial financial commitments from a variety of sources.
The university currently budgets about $2.9 million annually for technology transfer and venture development, through UConn funds and federal research dollars, in addition to an entrepreneurship center funded by a private, endowed donation.
“It is imperative that UConn is part of Connecticut’s strategy for the next decade by leveraging its resources and successes to help drive the state forward as a leading innovation hub,” officials said in the document. Success will be measured by factors including number of faculty involved in commercialization, how many jobs are created by UConn companies, how many small businesses grow with support from UConn, and how many students stay in the state after graduation due to initiatives in the plan.
“Our goal is really to grow the startups in Connecticut, to help our students and faculty to be entrepreneurial but also to help move our economy forward,” Maric said at the first meeting of the Board of Trustees’ Research, Entrepreneurship and Innovation Committee.
Growth in Stamford
The strategic plan calls for new opportunities at UConn Stamford and for more movement of students between the flagship in Storrs and the Fairfield County campus.
Because of the state’s “unusually high density of large corporations,” officials propose a “world-leading data science institute in Stamford seeded with industry-friendly and entrepreneurially-minded faculty.”
They plan to offer a “unique program that sends UConn students from Storrs to complete their degree in Stamford, with a built-in co-op experiential learning requirement.”
UConn launched an internship program for students in Stamford last year, and according to the new plan, the school hopes to have 100 students interning at startups there annually.
The plan also calls for a Stamford Technology Incubation Program with UConn and non-UConn startups, similar to the one already operating in Storrs and Farmington.
Maric said in an interview that the school is making efforts to expand its work in Hartford as well, specifically in medical technology, in an effort to work with companies across the state.
Another of UConn’s objectives is to have student entrepreneurship hubs on all its campuses.
The plan calls for increasing entrepreneurship opportunities for students by adding support for student-created companies and launching more internship opportunities for students. Academic and extracurricular programs for students are already underway, and the plan suggests exploring “establishment of a student-managed fund in seed-stage venture development.”
They envision having graduate students in business working with student and faculty entrepreneurs in a “for-credit experiential education class.”
Part of the innovation effort will include three tiers of new hires, outlined at the board committee meeting last week by Vice Provost for Academic Affairs John Volin.
UConn wants to hire 10 new “innovation professors” in life sciences fields, and has requested $10 million over five years from the Connecticut Biosciences Fund, which is administered by the quasi-public Connecticut Innovations. The university would match the CBIF funding with another $10 million, according to the proposal.
Volin described those hires as “individual faculty with excellence in translational research, community-engaged scholarship, significant entrepreneurship efforts or exceptional applied research.” Some of them will likely come from “nontraditional” backgrounds, rather than academic career trajectories, he said.
The proposal says funding would be used to hire a search firm to recruit professors, to pay annual $200,000 salaries to each Innovation Professor, cover fringe costs and provide approximately $1 million to each professor for labs, equipment and other needs. The initiative would also include entrepreneurial labs in the UConn School of Medicine.
The plan was presented to the CBIF Advisory Committee on Nov. 13 and is still under consideration, Maric said.
UConn is also looking to add Target of Opportunity Hires (TOPS Hires), and Cluster Hires, Volin said.
The TOPS Hires are intended to be “outstanding researchers of international stature,” who “hold substantial external research awards.” Recruiting them will require “significant resources,” including facilities, equipment and the ability to hire supporting faculty and staff.
Faculty who are hired in “clusters” would likely be based in different departments, but would be “linked in addressing complex societal problems.”
The plan also outlines various challenges or obstacles, including changing the culture and integrating commercialization and innovation into the academic environment.
Changes have already been made to include inventions, patents and other innovation efforts to the criteria for tenure.
“There are definitely some faculty that have been concerned about what it means, because this is very unknown territory,” Maric said.
“We would like to focus on the university as a whole,” she said, but it’s likely to be most prominent in science, technology, engineering and math fields. There is collaboration going on between arts and engineering faculty, as well as humanities and business, she said.
In an analysis of strengths and weaknesses, issues identified included “limited local capital,” “a history of underperformance in revenue and startups,” and insufficient funding, vision, strategy, staff and resources. The “unstable university budget situation” was also listed as a threat, as was the impact of high fringe benefit rates on grant activity, faculty retention and recruitment.
Another of UConn’s weaknesses has been in developing a “robust mentor pool.” The plan aims to build on the existing Husky Mentor Network, standardize mentor training and track engagement with mentors.
Officials also want to build alumni networks of investors, and of people who can fill roles in new startups.
Board of Trustees chair Dan Toscano said a lack of organized structure has been a barrier to those relationships. “It’s one of the big challenges of a place as sprawling as this,” he said.
“I spend a lot of time with venture capitalists and private equity firms in my professional life, and I’m not yet a mentor here, I haven’t been asked,” said Toscano, who is the managing director of global leveraged finance at Morgan Stanley. “It’s about communication.”
The plan also includes working with other universities to build opportunities statewide.
Some of those efforts are already underway through existing programs, like the Connecticut Intercollegiate Partnership for Technology Transfer.
Through that program, Southern and Central Connecticut State Universities and the University of Bridgeport can access UConn’s technology transfer resources and facilities.
Amy Taylor, Southern’s Director of Sponsored Programs and Research, called it a “wonderful collaboration” and said she’d like to see the relationship continue. “On the highest level, their technology transfer office acts as a mentor and a support system for Southern,” where that kind of activity has previously “not been that robust,” she said.
The partnership has helped develop expertise in invention disclosures, commercialization and patent processes at Southern, she said, and faculty have received 10 grants from the program. Expanding innovation and entrepreneurship on the campus is “crucial,” she said, because it gives students “real life experience” working in labs and companies.
Under the strategic plan, UConn expects to have at least one new startup per year “based on collaboration with other universities in Connecticut” through the plan, and to hold annual statewide university forums.