SALT LAKE CITY — Economic optimism was running high and state tax revenues were flowing hundreds of millions over expectations back in 2005, which made it a great time for then-Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. to champion a novel, albeit expensive, new initiative that would work to distinguish Utah as a technology and innovation leader.
And Huntsman, who in his second year in office had mastered the craft of combining subtle political arm-twisting with finesse to move his policy ideas forward, got what he wanted when SB75 passed the Legislature in 2006, creating the new Utah Science, Technology and Research initiative.
The effort was widely backed by both the Utah business community and state academic leaders, and Huntsman's comments to the Deseret News at the time reflected the expansive scope of his vision.
"We'll write the lyrics that others will want to pursue and read from eventually, but it's developed, it's innovated, it's created here, and that's where the jobs are going to be produced. And it will also mean that we will be a haven for the intellectual leadership and talent from universities all over this nation that will allow USTAR to multiply and build upon itself year after year after year," Huntsman said.
Eleven years later, USTAR remains committed to its original mission of leveraging science and technology innovation to expand and diversify Utah's economy, and has recently re-tooled, with guidance provided by an exhaustive independent assessment and some helpful tweaks from the Legislature.
Ivy Estabrooke, USTAR's executive director and a neuroscientist, said the changes put the agency in an even better position to cultivate and accelerate the process that helps grow innovations from idea to product.
"Our role is evolving to continue to offer help at the most effective junctures in the innovation pipeline," Estabrooke said. "We've worked closely with the Legislature ... and the result is a bigger and better toolbox to positively impact Utah's innovation ecosystem."
Estabrooke said the new tools, which include a slate of new funding programs, and legislative changes that have allowed USTAR to work with Utah's private colleges in addition to the state university system, are necessary to keeping up the state's ever-changing technology sphere.
"I think this reset has allowed us to add focus to addressing market gaps, which is a forward issue," she said. "The changes give us the adaptability we need to respond to the innovation ecosystem evolving and maturing."
One of the most common of these market gaps is so prevalent for those working to turn ideas into products that it's earned its own ominous moniker — the Valley of Death.
This is the gap that an innovator is likely to encounter when smaller startup grants or self-financing that has kept research and early development going has dried up, but the idea hasn't advanced far enough to, say, build a prototype, often a necessary sign of progress to start attracting the interest of private funding sources, like angel investors or venture capitalists. This gap is a frequent barrier for both academic research efforts and private, entrepreneurial endeavors.
Electrochemical scientist Chett Boxley, the business development director for Ceramatec, a private advanced research company in Salt Lake City that's participated in USTAR programs, said USTAR 2.0 is much better suited to the current needs of the state's innovation industries.
"Since they've redefined themselves over the last two to three years with a new focus on supporting the entrepreneurial system, it's been huge," Boxley said. "The new programming and support, like the Technology Acceleration Program, and others, have helped create lifelines for researchers and startups to get across that chasm, the Valley of Death."
Boxley recently worked under the umbrella of one of USTAR's newest efforts, the Industry Partners Program, in collaboration with University of Utah professor Taylor Sparks on a new technique for creating windows that are able to dim electrochemically, either by remote control or in response to changing light conditions.
For science fiction fans, the idea may spark reminiscence of a famous scene from "Blade Runner," where a giant pane of glass at Tyrell Corp. is internally dimmed before Deckard administers the Voight-Kampff test to replicant Rachel.
Boxley and Sparks put a $25,000 Industry Partners Program grant to work and were able to significantly advance the research. Sparks, a materials science expert and director of the U.'s Materials Characterization Lab, said the technology he's working to improve is already available but extremely expensive, running in the neighborhood of $100 per square foot, and can only be found in new windows with the dimming capability part of the manufacturing process.
"We're working on adapting this technology in a manner that will allow us to create a film that could be applied to existing windows," Sparks said. "This would allow a user to retrofit windows at a cost, maybe around $20 per square foot, that makes it a reasonable option."
Besides just being a very cool thing to be able to do, the ability to dim windows electrochemically could represent significant energy efficiency gains, even over windows with a permanently applied tint.
"One model studied found that using electrical tinting in place of static tinting saved over 9 percent of your whole house energy use and 13 percent of electricity use," Sparks said.
While the grant from USTAR was relatively small, Sparks said, it came at just the right time and the connection he was able to make with Ceramatec, via the Industry Partners Program, was a key to the successful outcome. He also noted that, based on conversations he's had with academic colleagues, Utah researchers are getting a distinct advantage, thanks to USTAR.
"I don't know of other states doing what we're doing here with the broad, almost NSF-style funding that USTAR is engaged in," Sparks said. "I've talked to my peers (in other states) and it's hard for them to wrap their heads around."
In the early days, USTAR's focus was on building new research-focused facilities and recruiting top-of-their-field, rock star researchers and bringing them to the state's two big research schools, the U. and Utah State University. Part of the thinking at that time was the profits associated with the product/process licensing that these researchers would produce, along with potential new businesses and more high-paying positions for those spinoff companies, would be the best route to meet USTAR's mission mandate.
While that formula does work, Estabrooke said, the arc from idea to new company and new jobs is an extended journey and wasn't accurately recognized in USTAR's original prospectus.
"It takes a long time to get from an idea that a university professor has to the point where it's on the market," she said. "It can, in some cases, be a 10-, 30-year process."
That misconception and other impacts like the country falling into the Great Recession at the end of 2007, led to USTAR missing its original targets by significant margins. There have also been issues uncovered in the trio of legislative audits that have been assessed on the agency, as well as some concerns raised about reporting methodology.
Estabrooke, who took over USTAR's helm in mid-2014, said the bumps have been overcome, and a much better basis on which to measure successes was guided by the findings of a 2015 assessment by SRI International.
"The new prospectus that SRI did for us included all the data we had accumulated since 2006, including actual licensing revenue and the federal funding earned by our researchers," she said. "They also were able to find appropriate comparative program efforts in other states, which really was completely missing from the original data estimates."
Under SRI's new, reality-based, best practices projections, USTAR is projected in the next 15 years to leverage its estimated $383 million in funding to generate $548 million in external research funding, $1.26 billion in follow-on investment in early stage companies that will create 2,000 new full-time jobs while selling $283 million worth of innovation-birthed products.
Keith Marmer, executive director and associate vice president of the U.'s Technology and Venture Commercialization, said while the old USTAR approach wasn't bad, the newly revamped strategy is definitely better.
"It's not to say the old program wasn't productive," Marmer said. "But because they're taking this competitive grant approach, they're solving a couple of challenges that we have in the tech commercialization space.
"They're providing funding opportunities at some of the most critical junctures, where funding is the hardest to come by."
And Val Hale, the executive director of the Governor's Office of Economic Development, lauded USTAR's continued relevance to moving Utah's economy forward.
"USTAR is a valuable partner in Utah’s innovative landscape," Hale said. "Under Ivy Estabrooke’s leadership, they have refined their programs to address critical business needs.
"They connect companies with research and development resources while promoting entrepreneurship statewide. By fostering new ideas, USTAR elevates the state’s diverse technology and science industries.”