USTAR initiative requests more funding

Published: Thursday, Feb. 16 2012 5:50 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — A group of prominent business leaders is asking the Utah Legislature to put their money where the ideas are.

At the Capitol on Thursday, they called on lawmakers boost funding to the Utah Science, Technology and Research initiative that has helped make Utah among the nation's most fertile innovation environments.

"We've proven to the business community that we have delivered on the promise (to foster research and innovation)," said USTAR executive director Ted McAleer.

Started in 2007, the program was granted approximately $19 million to fund research and outreach, but since then — due to the economic downturn — overall funding for USTAR has declined about 28 percent, he said. With funding down to about $13 million in 2011, supporters hope to restore funding to at least original levels and an additional $10 million, if possible.

"Because of the budget cuts of the past couple of years, we've been challenged to continue to grow at the (original) level," McAleer said.

Since its inception, USTAR has helped produce more than 300 invention disclosures and patent filings, and 44 start-up companies or industry partnerships, according to a program statement.

USTAR collaborates with the University of Utah and Utah State University to create world-class research teams in strategic innovation development areas. Highly regarded faculty members, supported by teams of top researchers, lead the teams.

The model calls for institutions of higher learning to construct facilities and recruit high-end researchers whose technologies can be commercialized.

Among the innovative technologies USTAR faculty has helped cultivate is spider silk developed by the Synthetic Bio-Manufacturing Center at USU Commercial Enterprises. The center uses metabolic processes of organisms to transform raw materials into low cost biomaterials.

"Spider silk is one of the strongest materials that exists," said USU biology professor and USTAR faculty member Randy Lewis. "It has a strength higher than Kevlar and elasticity greater than nylon."

He said potential applications for the spider silk are for use in medical devices and equipment, including spider silk–based synthetic ligaments as well as sutures for surgery.

In addition, the exceptional flexibility, strength and weight of spider silk make it a potentially ideal material for products such as vehicular airbags and high-performance sports apparel, he explained.

Through USTAR, Lewis said that his team has created a line of transgenic goats that produce spider silk proteins in goat milk and transgenic silk worms that incorporate spider silk proteins into their cocoons — allowing for relatively easy large-scale production.

Another innovation in development through USTAR is a handheld portable x-ray device created by Provo-based Aribex Inc. — already used in dental offices. Company chairman Clark Turner said USTAR funding could aid in the eventual development of a similar device for use in the medical field.

"So you would be able to take medical x-rays — arms, legs, head, feet — in the field or in nursing homes or in the emergency room," he explained.

In the wake of the program's success, Dinesh Patel — chairman of the USTAR governing authority — said they felt justified in asking for an increase in funding to spur even more innovation and long-term economic development in Utah.

"The impact of USTAR can be felt across the state," Patel said.

A recommendation for increased funding for the initiative was approved by the Business, Economic Development, and Labor Appropriations Subcommittee, according to committee co-chairman Rep. Todd Kiser, R-Sandy. The measure is expected to be reviewed by the Executive Appropriations Committee sometime next week.

"I'm hopeful that it will be funded," Kiser said. 

E-mail: jlee@desnews.com Twitter: JasenLee1

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