Universities Role in Economic Development Efforts

Universities Role in Economic Development Efforts

This last week I was in Pittsburgh for an annual conference dedicated to economic developers operating within institutions of higher education.  The Annual Summit’s tagline was aptly put – Bridging Opportunities: Community + Collaboration + Innovation. As a U.S. SourceLink affiliate, many of the economic developers who will read this post understand the value proposition that universities can pose to local economic development efforts.

I thought I might take a moment to share what innovative things are happening within our universities and community colleges nationwide to support economic development objectives.  At the conference, these inspiring programs were grouped in to five categories (Community Connected Campus, Research and Analysis, Leadership and Collaboration, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and Talent Development).  These top programs are included below. You can find the full list of impressive award finalists here.

Community Connected Campus

The goal of the Wyoming Technology Business Center Incubation Program is to provide development assistance to early-stage Wyoming businesses preparing for high growth. Business assistance is offered through the Wyoming Technology Business Center (WTBC) staff and focuses on four important aspects of growing a business; sales and marketing, organizational structure, financial and information systems, and ongoing strategic planning. Through this work, the WTBC is creating a fertile business environment that will assist in the diversification of Wyoming’s economy. Because of the success of the incubator program in Laramie, the WTBC’s mission is to grow the program across the state. Recently, an incubator was added in Casper, Wyoming, and there are plans for another location to be opened in Gillette. In addition to expanding our own program, the WTBC also works with other established incubators, such as Forward Sheridan of Sheridan, WY to achieve a statewide presence.

Research and Analysis

Entrepreneurs often need key business intelligence to make decisions associated with starting or growing a company. Market and customer demographics, industry trends, competitor data and email/mailing lists are critical, yet most information of this kind is out of financial reach for young companies. The UNI Business Concierge provides on-call and online business intelligence for free to startups and young companies in Iowa. UNI’s Entrepreneurship Outreach team assembled existing university database resources and trained a business concierge to offer custom and timely business intelligence to entrepreneurs, then connect them with the service providers needed to move them forward. All online. The Business Concierge is marketed by service provider partners who upload an iframed Business Concierge module into their own websites, where it is marketed as a free, local resource for small business through the city, county or state economic development organization’s website.

Leadership and Collaboration

REACH NC is a publicly accessible and searchable web-based portal that uses advanced technologies to enable quicker and easier location of faculty experts in North Carolina. The uniqueness of REACH NC lies in the partnership of public and private universities and research institutes to make the portal, and REACH NC brand and mission a truly statewide effort. New features under development will allow users to search for core laboratories, equipment, and other assets. Unlike other similar portals, REACH NC includes experts not only from the biomedical sciences but from a broad range of disciplines including social science, education, and business. The initiative was launched by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University with support from University of North Carolina General Administration, and has since been expanded to include 13 other North Carolina public universities, Duke, and RTI International. REACH NC now contains over 8,300 expert profiles representing these 17 institutions. REACH NC aims to act as a ‘one stop portal’ to enable quicker and more effective location of experts for collaborative opportunities for internal and external partners. Private companies, economic development agencies, and university faculty and staff have utilized REACH NC to find partners for collaboration on research projects and proposals, obtain technical assistance or consulting, showcase statewide expertise for economic development, and find speakers, reviewers, and mentors.

Innovation and Entrepreneurship

University of Northern Iowa’s Dream Big Grow Here contest attracts and networks Iowa entrepreneurs with resource and service providers through an innovative statewide business grant contest that rewards a good pitch and a sound business approach with cash. Dream Big Grow Here utilizes a custom contest technology to attract entrepreneurs to upload their dreams to start or expand a business, then encourage friends, family, and customers to vote for them. Top vote getters compete in a regional Pitch Off event for a $5,000 cash award. Regional winners then compete for another $10,000 grand prize during a statewide Pitch Off at the end of the year. UNI recruited six regional economic development organizations to collaborate in the launch of the first Dream Big Grow Here contest in 2011. Wildly popular, 142 companies competed in an online contest, attracting more than 100,000 votes and a half million online views. Pitch Off event winners connected entrepreneurs with regional and statewide resources/service providers. In 2012, two hundred twenty-five contestants took part in one of ten regional contests and a waiting list was established for EDO’s wishing to host.  Recently, Dream Big Grow Here was expanded to Oklahoma.  More information on this can be found at Dream Big Oklahoma.

Talent Development

In the 20 year history of innovation and entrepreneurship, in addition to helping may local companies, Lehigh University’s Integrated Product Development (IPD) program has been the launching pad for several notable successful student startups. In the spring of 2012, Lehigh faculty launched its unique Master of Engineering in Technical Entrepreneurship (MTE) with the sole purpose of creating successful student startups. This new graduate program is open to entrepreneurially-minded students from any undergraduate major. Lehigh’s MTE program features a dedicated curriculum, a dedicated faculty, and dedicated creative spaces, all focused on helping student entrepreneurs create, refine, and commercialize intellectual property through licensing and launching of a new business. In fact new product development and company launch are graduation requirements. The MTE program is the latest addition to Lehigh’s University’s award winning entrepreneurship ecosystem that is designed to attract and support student entrepreneurs. On May 20, 2013, Lehigh graduated its first class of 14 entrepreneurs who created 12 new products and launched 10 new businesses. The very next day, the 28 members of the MTE class of 2014 started their journey into creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship. The ten year goal of Lehigh’s MTE program is to graduate 90 student entrepreneurs and launch 50 new companies each year and in the process become a major source of economic development for the Lehigh Valley, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the USA. As we like to say, “Don’t take a job, come to Lehigh to create your own!”

As you can see, institutions of higher education are leading the way in innovative economic development programs in the United States.  Check out these programs and let us know what you think in the comments section below!

Content contributed by Rob Williams, IASourceLink.  IASourceLink is a proud affiliate of U.S. SourceLink, America’s largest resource network for entrepreneurs.

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