University of Innovation

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With pilot programs tackling research commercialization, the shortage of tech skills and Iowa’s brain drain soon to go statewide, this is no ivory tower

The history of universities is one of democratization.

Early universities existed to educate the clergy. The Land-Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890 brought an expanded focus on agricultural and technical skills. After 1944, the GI Bill introduced waves of people who had never had access to higher education before, and the civil rights movement broadened access even more.

Right now we’re going through another transition in how the modern university relates to its community.

“The compact between society and higher education is in its biggest state of flux now as it’s ever been in my professional lifetime,” said Dan Reed, the University of Iowa’s vice president for research and economic development. “Societal expectations for what a university should do are changing.”

Reed highlighted three key areas where he hopes to see the UI become more engaged: licensing and commercialization of intellectual property, entrepreneurship education for students and community members, and partnerships that reach across the state.

“What’s really changed, not just here, but across the country, is that universities have become more engaged in economic development,” said David Conrad, who became the UI’s economic development director in November. “In the olden days, universities were much more isolated. They thought they could do it alone. What’s happened in the last few years is they’ve come to realize that they are one piece in the ecosystem you need to do a startup or get technology out to the market.”

Conrad completes the economic development leadership trio of Reed and David Hensley, associate vice president for economic development and executive director for JPEC, the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center.

In the past few months, JPEC has launched pilot programs tackling entrepreneurship for all (Venture School, an intensive course in market validation), the shortage of technically skilled workers (web development boot camps) and Iowa’s brain drain (Iowa Innovation Associates, which pairs undergraduate students with growing Iowa companies). If the pilots prove successful, these programs, or something like them, will expand statewide in the coming months.

Meanwhile, Reed is preparing to open the UI’s first engagement center, which likely will be located at the University of Iowa Research Park in Coralville. The center will be staffed with eight to 10 full-time consultants, ready to help businesses innovate and grow. The difference between it and existing resources such as small business development centers will be an emphasis on bringing new technology and advanced business analytics to industry.

Reed hopes to open four to six of these centers statewide.

“We have to go to them, they won’t come to us,” he said.

Explore the economic development landscape at the UI: 

Interactive by Melissa Roadman / The Gazette

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