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How the University of Utah has become a 'catalyst for innovation' in the Beehive State

University of Utah's Research Park is pictured in Salt Lake City on Dec. 20. The U. last week released their annual Innovation Report, detailing how the university is playing a role in the Beehive State's rapidly growing innovation economy.

University of Utah's Research Park is pictured in Salt Lake City on Dec. 20. The U. last week released their annual Innovation Report, detailing how the university is playing a role in the Beehive State's rapidly growing innovation economy. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — The University of Utah last week released its 2021 Innovation Report, detailing how the university has a seemingly golden touch when it comes to startup companies.

A precedent-setting $884 million in investments was raised by U. startups in 2021 and technologies developed by University of Utah faculty and students contributed to the launch of 14 startup companies last year, according to the report.

Keith Marmer, chief innovation and economic engagement officer at the U., said that Utah's innovation economy is made up of a range of industries that are being driven by the innovation being developed in the Beehive State, adding that "a lot" of that innovation happens in the university setting.

"We're doing over $650 million a year in research every year at the U. — some of that involves partnering with the private sector, partnering with entrepreneurs, partnering with venture capitalists, partnering with government," Marmer added. "That innovation economy, when I think of it, is basically the partnerships and the relationships across all of those stakeholders that's leveraging innovation to advance the economy, typically taking the form of startups or growing innovative companies to (a) larger scale."

A big part of the success detailed in the report is due to the U.'s Partners for Innovation, Ventures, Outreach and Technology Center, the university's organization that oversees innovation management. Marmer said he sees the center as a "catalyst for innovation."

The functions of the center fall into a few broad categories: technology, commercialization, corporate engagement and economic development, he said.

"We start between 10 and 15 new companies a year. We help those companies recruit management teams, raise capital, but we're also responsible for relationships with industry to help bring new research and innovation opportunities into the university," Marmer said.

"Most importantly, over the top of all of that, we manage a lot of the relationships between the stakeholders and make sure that everybody's connected."

While there are entities similar to the PIVOT Center at other universities, Marmer said that the novelty of it is how they work in a "fully integrated fashion."

"Oftentimes, you'll find an office that just does tech commercialization, or just does economic development. We created the center a couple of years ago to operate in a fully integrated fashion — I think that was the unique piece," he said.

When looking at the report, Marmer said he focuses on value and impact.

"On the quantitative side, looking at how much capital our companies raised last year — it was a big year — the marketplace is validating the quality of the companies by putting that much money into them and giving those companies the resources to continue to go forward and have an impact," he said.

"On the qualitative side, fiscal year 2021 existed in the COVID world. We did a number of licenses for technology around the world that led to some startup companies that are trying to have an impact on COVID — the fact that we're able to contribute to that, Utah's part of the solution of trying to address COVID — to me, it's those qualitative pieces that (are) important," Marmer said.

Another major factor in Utah's burgeoning innovation economy is an environment that Marmer called "supportive, welcoming and tolerant" of new ideas.

"One of the things that we do at PIVOT Center is (to) try to support those new entrepreneurs or those new ideas in any way we can — I think you see that throughout a lot of the Utah innovation ecosystem," he said.

While the past year was a successful one for the U.'s center and its ventures, Marmer said he's excited for what lies ahead.

"Some of the things that I look towards that are exciting (are) our involvement in growing the physical presence — our footprint at Research Park and creating an innovation home adjacent to our campus, but also the work that we're doing in downtown Salt Lake in creating an innovation district and then partnering with other universities in the private sector at Point of the Mountain," Marmer said.

"When you look at the rankings," he said, "I think we could easily just put a flag in the ground and say 'we're doing great, we're No.1,' — there are so much growth opportunities still ahead of us."


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