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Anyone who walks into a casino, plunks down $100 and leaves with $2,000 feels good about his investment.

Utah officials have made similar accomplishments although it didn't come via the gambling tables.The Centers of Excellence Program has parlayed less than $10 million in taxpayer money into $171 million in research and development money after cultivating relationships with businesses or other sources in less than three years.

The main purpose of the program is to transform the research and development gained at Utah's four major universities into economic reality. That means attacting companies that pay taxes into the state which would create new jobs - thus stimulating Utah's economy.

Until a few years ago, any research and development at a university remained there. Educators and researchers were reluctant to commercialize their findings. But that thinking has changed. Now it's popular to move research into the marketplace.

In fact, some of the researchers serve on the boards of companies created to market the products developed at the universities. Some professors have left the research field to form the companies and run them, thrusting them into the businessman's role.

Heading the Centers of Excellence program in Utah is Lynn H. Blake, director of business development for the Utah Department of Community and Economic Development. Blake, an Ogden native, was originally hired in the autumn of 1986 to run the program but was elevated a year ago to his business development post because of Gov. Norm Bangerter's commitment to strenghtening Utah's economy through technological development.

Blake received a mechanical engineering degree from Brigham Young University in 1962 and a master's degree in engineering from the University of Michigan a year later. He received his doctorate degree from the University of Michigan in 1966 after writing his dissertation on a high temperature gas dynamics description of gas flow on the Apollo (moon shot) re-entry vehicle.

He has worked at the Medical University of South Carolina, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and the Lockheed Research Laboratory.

How does an Ogdenite exposed to many scientific and engineering-related jobs wind up in Utah?

Blake said he had many opportunities in the past 25 years to return to Utah, but none of them were as attractive as the Centers of Excellence program. When David W. Adams, department executive director, called Blake, he responded.

From a rather modest $2.48 million legislative appropriation in fiscal year 1986, a total of $9.7 million has been appropriated through the fiscal year ending June 30, 1989. Of that total, $8.4 million had been obligated to the 29 centers programs as of Nov. 30, 1988.

The centers' programs focus on a variety of research, ranging from computers used in manufacturing, space satellites, energy, artificial limbs, fluid separations, semiconductor devices and plant breeding.

Utah has stiff competition from other states in attracting research and development money. For example, in fiscal 1988, Texas spent $60 million, New Jersey, $76 million, Pennsylvania, $49 million, and Minnesota, $39 million. Regulations governing the centers' program call for a 2-1 match, but that figure has been exceeded by a large margin since contributions from private sources and other governmental agencies totaled $171.8 million as of Nov. 30, 1988. Each project must develop a plan to become self-supporting within three to five years.

Blake said Utah colleges and universities have been recognized as leading centers for research and development. A recent National Science Foundation study said the University of Utah ranks third behind the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and California Polytechnic Institute in small business spinoffs using university research.

The Corporation for Enterprise Development ranks Utah fourth in per capita money going to universities for research and development and the state ranks second in the number of science and engineering students being produced.

"Playing a significant role in economic development for many years, our schools train students to deal with the expanding base of scientific knowledge. Transferring this talent and knowledge to the private sector has contributed to the diffusion of scientific knowledge and creation of new firms and industries within Utah and also out of state," Blake said.

Companies along the Wasatch Front helped the area earn the title of "bionic valley" because of the innovations in the biomedical field, and the Centers of Excellence program is helping boost that image by getting the products into the marketplace.

Blake said in the United States it costs an average of $100 million to successfully develop and market some products. After most of the research has been completed on a project, the Centers of Excellence program enters the picture and performs a market analysis, prototype development, testing and product evaluation.

"We must have some confidence that when the project leaves the laboratory it has a good chance of being successful and adding value as the project evolves," Blake said.

Much of the research and development in the Centers of Excellence programs has been going on for several years, but after being formed in 1986, it focused attention on research and development and encouraged businesses, foundations and the federal government to contribute money.

An example of how some research and development projects in universities evolved into a Centers of Excellence is contained in a centers brochure.

During 1967, scientists at Utah State University were concerned about the generally poor quality of commercially available fetal bovine serum and began collecting and processing serum for their own research. Demand for the serum grew so much that by 1975, production was taken off campus and HyClone Laboratories formed.

Beginning with three employees, HyClone now has more than 100 workers and its customers number more than 9,000 and represent all major universities in the United States and every country in the world.

When a scientist or professor feels his project has potential, he submits and application to Blake's office. The applications are considered by a 15-member advisory council. Recommendations go to the Utah Economic Development Board, which makes the final decision for funding.

Board members audit the funds periodically to check the progress of a project and make certain taxpayer money is being used for the intended purposes. In order to keep a handle on projects and ensure state money is wisely spent, Blake hired Larry Hansen, recently retired vice president of Varian Corp., Palo Alto, Calif., who has examined the 29 centers and categorized them according to their past performance and future possibilities.

The board uses his recommendations in deciding which projects get state money. He has written two reports and in the second, placed the research and development projects in several categories.

One group contains six centers which Hansen believes are making progress toward their original objectives of forming companies and continuing to use technology to aid the company. These six should continue to receive maximum state support, Hansen believes.

A second group includes eight companies that proved their technology to some degree and have the potential to create significant economic opportunities. These also should receive maximum support.

A third group contains several projects that don't have immediate economic potential, but they are making progress and could be moved to the second group. A fourth group is being closely monitored and could be cut off from state money because "they may not have significant industrial development potential to continue as separate Centers of Excellence." Hansen said.