UConn Moving Forward on Bold ‘Innovation Faculty’ Plan to Bolster Entrepreneurialism, Grow State’s Economy

Plan envisions recruiting 'innovation faculty' over the next five years, all with track records of entrepreneurship in targeted areas

A sunrise over Storrs.

(UConn Photo)

UConn’s wide-ranging plan to help grow Connecticut’s economy by greatly expanding faculty-led innovation is moving ahead, with key committees endorsing its specifics Wednesday and sending it to the full Board of Trustees.

UConn created the plan, “Innovation Faculty Hires & Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Initiative,” as a roadmap to improve tech transfer, entrepreneurship, and innovation through research that leads to new patents, companies, licenses, and technologies.

In turn, that helps Connecticut’s economy grow and cements its reputation as an entrepreneurship hub with startup companies and jobs, new technologies in key areas such as clean energy and genomics, and innovations that set the foundation for more breakthroughs to come.

UConn’s plan envisions recruiting 10 “innovation faculty” members over the next five years – all with track records of entrepreneurship in targeted areas – along with the resources they would need to reach even higher levels of their work, such as their postdoc researchers, lab equipment, specialized scientific instruments, and other needs.

UConn will cast a very wide net to recruit individuals who do not necessarily come from traditional academia, and whose attributes also complement and contribute in meaningful ways to UConn’s mission and the work of their fellow faculty members.

They are likely to be people who have started companies, patented innovative technologies, used their research to create jobs, and have broken new ground in private industry and public realms.

The plan also envisions an entrepreneurial ecosystem in which those faculty members would spread those skills throughout UConn through an innovation pipeline including other faculty, students, and partners inside and outside of the University.

“We want to maximize and leverage the skills of our faculty, staff, and students. We want to remove the barriers and enable entrepreneurs to gain that momentum and increase their chances of success,” Interim President Radenka Maric said Wednesday in describing the plan to a joint meeting of the Board of Trustees’ committees on academic affairs and research, entrepreneurship, and innovation.

The new hires will have proven track records in specific strategic areas such as genomics, clean and renewable energy, data science, fintech, biomedical science and engineering, cybersecurity, health and aging, sustainable agriculture, and advanced manufacturing.

In fact, UConn’s deans and department heads already have been watching for potential recruits whose skills in innovation and entrepreneurship might make them a good fit for the positions.

The plan was created under the auspices of Connecticut legislation approved in 2019 that directed UConn to envision and create a bold proposal to increase entrepreneurship and innovation at its campuses; and the follow-up legislation in 2021 that allows for UConn to approach the State Bond Commission to access funding for the plan’s phases.

The plan would be funded with $46.1 million over five years in state bond funds. It’s estimated to produce a return on that investment of 13.2%, or a $52.2 million increase in the state’s Gross Domestic Product. UConn also will commit nearly $7 million, emphasizing its dedication to the plan and demonstrating what UConn Provost Carl Lejuez described as “having skin in the game.”

Of the $46.1 million in funding, about $20 million would fund the resources needed to attract the new hires – such as lab space, equipment, and their postdocs or other experts who were part of their previous successful ventures. The rest would fund the salaries and fringe benefits for the first five years.

After that, UConn would fund the salaries and benefits every year as they do with other faculty positions.

“These are unique positions by design. We’d certainly want the individuals who come in to fit within the broader fabric of the University and what we’ve come to know as a faculty member at UConn, but also that these are individuals with a clear focus on commercialization and development of viable companies,” Lejuez, who is also UConn’s executive vice president for academic affairs, told the committees on Wednesday.

“When this is successful, what it also does is create an ecosystem that further generates additional opportunities for other faculty to learn how to be entrepreneurial in this way and how to think about commercialization,” he said.

Maric and others say the formula is simple but powerful: Faculty + research = jobs.

It’s an equation that UConn has successfully implemented over the years, helping boost its external research funding to record high levels – $377 million in FY21 – and establishing it firmly among Connecticut’s best assets in tech transfer and innovation.

UConn’s faculty already have proven themselves to be strong innovators, having filed 102 invention disclosures in 2021 and receiving 28 patents. Studies also have shown that for every research dollar that UConn attracts in externally sponsored research and spends within the state, 80 cents in economic output is generated elsewhere in the state economy.

The University invests heavily in supporting entrepreneurship in several ways, including through its Technology Incubation Program, which has helped 146 companies launch since 2003 and currently has 62 participating that have raised $956 million.

It also offers substantial resources and programming at its Innovation Partnership Building at the UConn Tech Park for startups founded both by UConn faculty and other innovators; “proof of concept” funding to help UConn researchers create prototypes that will help them seek patents and licenses; venture funding for innovators at all levels, including students; and many other initiatives.

UConn also has benefited from transformative philanthropy from individuals and organizations that embrace its mission of entrepreneurship, notably the Werth Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, which was established with gifts of $20 million and $7.5 million.

It also has received more than $6.1 million in investments since 2018 from CTNext for projects and programs that have created a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem across the state.

All of UConn’s current initiatives would continue; the Innovation Faculty Hires & Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Initiatives Plan would build on what UConn already does, and help it move to even higher levels with the brainpower of people who’ve proven their expertise in those areas.

Members of the committees that reviewed the plan on Wednesday enthusiastically endorsed it to be sent along to the Board of Trustees for that body’s consideration at its March 30 meeting.

They noted that it also offers valuable opportunities to increase DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) both in UConn’s entrepreneurial efforts and in Connecticut innovation as a whole; and can be nimble enough to respond in its recruiting to experts in other rapidly emerging fields.

“We often think of UConn as a leader in research in Connecticut, but I think to be on the front edge of that curve, we really need to be leaders in economy and technology, so I’m really excited to see this program,” said Jeanine Gouin ’87 (ENG), vice chair of the academic affairs committee.

“We all know that startups require a bit of nurturing and support in their infancy, and the fact that this can help bridge that gap is really exciting. I also really love the strategic content areas for investment; it feels like that’s the right place to be,” she added.