Look to Utah for university chancellor prototype

Because the Wisconsin economy is recovering more slowly than most states from the Great Recession – 47th in job creation so far in 2012 — it is only natural that its economic developers look elsewhere for models for faster growth.

Utah leaps to mind, because its university is leading the way to higher economic ground. The University of Utah claimed 19 startup firms in 2011, not too far behind MIT at 25.

Bryan Ritchie, who heads technology commercialization for that university, said, “Starting companies is in our DNA. We know how to do it. We need to do it better. I want to drive value into companies and make them viable.”

Midwestern universities generally have not figured out the startup game, even though they rank high for academic R&D. The University of Wisconsin – Madison had only four in 2011, compared to Illinois with 20; Michigan, 11; Minnesota, 9; Ohio; Indiana, 7; and Iowa, 2.

The M7 region of seven counties around Milwaukee, however, is learning the ropes fast for high-growth startups. BizStarts Milwaukee has tallied 47 over the last for years, about one a month. The goal is two a month. Both the Medical College of Wisconsin and UW – Milwaukee are in the game with several each in recent years.

It’s an important metric because of job creation, which flows from entrepreneurial activity. The Association of University Technology Managers, which has been tracking technology transfer from universities for 21 years, says that 14 jobs is the average for surviving startups over that time period. The jobs numbers cumulate as the young companies mature and more are added to the total year after year.

UW – Madison is looking for a new chancellor, and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. is looking for a new leader. Maybe they ought to look to Utah. We landed a football coach from there, but the other two positions are far more important for the state’s prosperity.

The University of Washington poached Utah’s university president, and Ohio University poached its technology transfer leader.

The track record for academic R&D at Madison is outstanding at $1.1 billion and licensing revenues are high at $54 million. But the startup activity there falls far short. It hasn’t been a priority for the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. The next chancellor has to fix that.

Business and government leaders need to help. Utah ranks number one in the Forbes Best States for Business, second in the CNBC Best States for Business and 8th in the New Economy Index, fourth in venture capital, first for on-line population and first for e-government.

With one-third of Utah’s academic R&D, its patent activity rivals Madison’s.

In yet another metric, Utah tops Wisconsin on R&D paid for by business. UW – Madison, which often comes off as adversarial to business, brought in $14 million in 2011, lowest in the Big 10. Utah’s universities brought in $23 million. Ohio was third in the nation with $151 million.

In short, the citizens of Wisconsin need its major universities to develop a better game plan for starting companies from their intellectual property. UW – Milwaukee has a mounted a major game plan to go from its own end zone six years ago to championship status with Utah.

The UW regents need to find a Madison chancellor who can do the same.

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