Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
FILE - President Russell M. Nelson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, speaks at the Utah Technology Innovation Summit in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 6, 2018 after receiving a lifetime achievement award for his accomplishments as a heart surgeon and researcher.

SALT LAKE CITY — While the long-term fate of the Utah Science, Technology and Research Initiative continues to hang in the balance, the agency is hosting a national conference this week for other innovation industry development groups from around the country.

The conference is an annual event organized by the State Science and Technology Institute, a national nonprofit based in Columbus, Ohio, that works in support of agencies like USTAR that are working to leverage economic development through the support of technology and innovation endeavors.

Institute President and CEO Dan Berglund lauded USTAR's evolution since its launch in 2006 under the leadership of then-Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.

"Starting from ground zero is always difficult and they've built a great program that has made sense for Utah’s economy," Berglund said. "While initially focused on building on the research strengths at the state's universities, they've evolved over time, which is a hallmark of a good agency.

"Their focus now on commercialization and company assistance work is a natural evolution for the program," he noted.

USTAR's mission of supporting so-called "deep tech" efforts — business innovations that are science and research-heavy, have longer timelines for returns for investors and are regularly shunned by the private markets — has been the focus of criticism by state lawmakers over a series of meetings this summer. But Berglund points out that other states that have opted out of this kind of economic development funding have suffered and, should Utah make the same decision, the state does so at its own peril.

"What is going on here, it would seem, is more a question of whether the government should have any role in economic development at all," Berglund said. "Unless everything is perfect in all regions of Utah, which it’s not, then making these kinds of investments make sense … if not, other states are going to make the investment and going to compete and are going to bear the benefit."

Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox delivered a lunchtime keynote address to the 300 or so attendees at downtown's Marriott Downtown at City Creek and pointed out that while Utah is riding a wave of high success in high-tech, the state's innovation portfolio needs to be diversified and warned of the pitfalls of complacency.

"From its earliest days, Utah has been defined by a spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation," Cox said. "History is replete, however, with examples of once dominant states, nations and empires failing and falling.

"More often than not, failure comes as a result of a state's inability to embrace technology and innovation."

Cox noted that modern innovation companies have a shorter shelf-life than their historic counterparts. While companies that made the S&P 500 back in the 1950s could expect to be around for at least 60 years, that average lifespan has now been shortened to less than 20 years. The key, Cox said, is not just growing the high-tech economic pie in Utah, it's "creating whole new pies" through holistic investment in the state's innovation industries.

"In Utah, we have seen massive growth in our (information technology) and software sector," Cox said. "However Utah’s ability to weather the next economic downturn will be compromised unless we have corresponding growth in our deep tech sectors like aerospace, life sciences, automation, robotics as well as clean tech."

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Ivy Estabrooke, a former executive director of USTAR who has a doctorate in neuroscience, spent years in research and worked for the U.S. Department of Defense, said during a panel discussion that navigating the waters of a shifting and unpredictable political tide was not only one of the factors that drove her out of the job, but was likely the biggest obstacles still facing the agency and the state.

"The biggest challenge currently is the sustained political support for technology-based economic development in the state," Estabrooke said. "USTAR was started in 2006 and has gone through several cycles of state support ebbing and flowing.

"I know this is a challenge most state programs face, but I think in Utah it’s a very big challenge."