Innovation—the process of creating new products and services and delivering them to customers—is tough. It’s tough, because the innovation process is nonlinear, requires adaptation, requires multiple skillsets, and engaging multiple stakeholders. Regions with strong innovation systems are well known, but where do states trying to build innovation systems start?
Utah offers some good lessons. In 2006, the state created the Utah Science Technology and Research (USTAR) initiative, the state agency tasked with making strategic investments to support the state’s technology-based economic development goals. USTAR made significant investments in Utah’s public research universities aimed at recruiting entrepreneurial faculty and supporting commercialization-focused research at the State’s R1 institutions. It also piloted a regional outreach program to provide business support services and pre-seed funding to entrepreneurs and startups throughout the state.
Ten years later, in 2015, the state and USTAR sought a program review and recommendations to ensure alignment of its programs with its tech-based economic development objectives. Noting the progress made during the first 10 years to incentivize the development of a more outward-facing and entrepreneurial culture at its R1 universities, SRI made four recommendations:
- Open up USTAR’s competitive research commercialization support to all Utah colleges and universities. This will ensure that the best technical approaches with the highest potential for commercial impact will be supported.
- Expand the role of the regional outreach program to provide acceleration services and early-stage risk capital to Utah startups.
- Rebalance the portfolio to assure resources are matched strategically to gaps.
- Align performance metrics with new programs and strategic direction, and include both short-term (lead) and long-term (lag) metrics.
During the 2016 Utah legislative session, statutory changes were made that will allow USTAR to implement the recommendations made by SRI. This includes extensive new metrics aligned to the outcomes desired for each component of USTAR’s programs.
As all investors, CEOs and CTOs of tech-based startups know, when you invest in technology-based innovation you invest for the long game. There’s a lot of risk and not every innovation attempt will pay off. However, the act of working with other actors in the system on technology commercialization is what drives innovation system development and innovation success in the long term. Kudos to the State of Utah for playing the long game.