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Ten Universities That Drive Economic Development


By Laura H. Corbin


Research is the foundation of today's knowledge economy, and as a result, research universities are playing an increasingly important role in economic development.  Communities are discovering that partnerships and collaboration with their local and regional universities, especially those involved in high-tech, medical and other research, can mean a boon for business.


Existing industry benefits by taking advantage of university research to develop new products and to improve processes.  New companies are making site selections based on being near hubs of research and the nation's top scientists, engineers and universities.  New companies are spinning out of university-based research in huge numbers, and these newly hatched businesses are helping to drive economic development.


The South is a hot-bed for these incubators, along with other types of partnerships and collaboration between universities and business.


Here's a look at ten universities that drive economic development:




Birmingham, ranked 22nd nationally for National Institutes for Health (NIH) funding, is home to four centers for Research & Entrepreneurial Development, including the University of Alabama Birmingham (UAB) Research Foundation.  UBA ranks in the top 20 for NIH funding.


A combination of R&D funds, clinical and preclinical capabilities, internationally recognized medical programs and practitioners, UAB provides a basis for successful growth and recruitment in the biotech industry.  UAB scientific discoveries have yielded a significant number of private biotech companies, such as BioCryst Pharmaceuticals and Southern Biosystems, recently purchased by Durect Corp.


UAB leads the Birmingham area in providing nationally recognized programs in medicine, law, engineering, pharmacy, liberal arts and business.  As part of a consortium of 10 four-year colleges and universities and seven two-year technical and community colleges, UAB is part of the Alabama Industrial Development Training (AIDT), whose mission is to provide quality workforce development for Alabama’s new and existing businesses.


UT Austin/Austin


The University of Texas Austin is the home of the Austin Technology Incubator, which assists start-up companies in becoming successful high-tech businesses.  The incubator has assisted more than 150 companies, which have generated $1.5 billion in revenue (1989-2004) and created 3,000 jobs.  Larger companies have acquired 25 of those ventures and four have become publicly traded.


Scores of companies have spun off from the UT Austin program, most recently Molecular Imprints.  Others include Tracor, Radian, National Instruments and Evolutionary Technologies.


The economic impact of UT Austin’s research and related expenditures total more than $1.2 billion annually.


UT Austin works with the City of Austin and the Austin Chamber of Commerce to create a community that is attractive to business and encourages talent retention.  For example, the continuous improvement of the UT Performing Arts Center helps position Austin as an artistic capital, and the recent renovation of the Ransom Center gives more public access to its stunning collections.


Mississippi State University/Starkville


The 220-acre Phase I Thad Cochran Research, Technology and Economic Development Park is home to a mix of tenants, including Mississippi State University researchers in high-performance computing, human mobility improvement, social science and other areas.


The research park is home to SemiSouth, a silicon carbide materials and electrical parts maker that grew from a collaboration of MSU professors; it now employs 62 people.  MSU markets the park, including space for a planned expansion.  Officials also are gearing up to open 52 acres of MSU-owned land east of Phase I.


MSU actively seeks partnerships with industries that can lease space and equipment and contract with universities to grow their businesses.  Many rely on the supercomputing power MSU has available in the park, plus talented faculty and proven research expertise in software design, computer simulation/animation, portable power, silicon carbide-related applications, aviation and automotive design/engineering.


Florida Atlantic University/Palm Beach


Florida Atlantic University’s (FAU) Office of Technology Transfer markets a product pipeline of innovative university technologies spanning a broad range of scientific fields, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, inflammation, arthritis, imagining, and security and surveillance technologies.  In 2006, the office filed 17 new patents, disclosed 26 new inventions, had two new patents issued, and signed four new license agreements.


Home to the Center of Excellence in Biomedical and Marine Biotechnology and the Center for Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, FAU provides resources and expertise for bioscience companies and scientists worldwide.


FAU was selected by the Florida Technology, Research and Scholarship Board to receive $5 million to establish the Florida Center of Excellence in Ocean Energy Technology.  The center is expected to have a significant economic impact for Florida, creating a new industry and more than 26,500 new jobs, changing the state from an energy importer to a leader in energy exports.


Georgia Institute of Technology/Metro Atlanta


Georgia Institute of Technology’s mission continues to include support for emerging technology companies, research commercialization, technology transfer, and technical and managerial assistance for business and industry.


Georgia Tech is one of the nation’s leading public research universities, with groundbreaking research under way focused on producing technology and innovation.  The university has top-ranked programs in the sciences, engineering, computing, architecture and related areas.  It is partner in the Georgia Research Alliance, a private, nonprofit corporation that works to capitalize on innovative university research to build a technology-rich economy.


Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute helps companies, entrepreneurs, economic developers and communities improve their competitiveness through the application of science, technology and innovation.  Its Advanced Technology Development Center is a nationally recognized science and technology incubator to help entrepreneurs launch and build successful companies.


Commercialization Services helps move innovations out of Georgia Tech’s labs into the marketplace by assessing the commercial potential of the research results and assisting in the development of new companies through its VentureLab program.


Johns Hopkins University/Baltimore


Johns Hopkins University (JHU), founded on “the belief that knowledge and the understanding of the intricacies of that knowledge are best sought through research,” has recognized that such a quest often leads to commercially relevant and patentable discoveries in its laboratories.


JHU’s Office of Technology Transfer (JHTT) works closely with JHU researchers to identify patentable and copyrightable inventions and tangible research properties that could become commercial products and services.  The office promotes and supports the university’s research enterprise through licensing and through facilitating collaborations between researchers, companies and entrepreneurs.  JHTT actively seeks and nurtures contacts with national and international companies capable of developing and commercializing the university’s innovations.


JHU participates in these efforts with the non-profit business incubator program called the Emerging Technology Center (ETC).  The ETC at JH Eastern focuses on commercializing innovative technology of JHU and other regional research institutions.  ETC, a part of the Baltimore Development Corp., promotes economic development by providing early-stage technology-based companies with business, technical and networking connections.


University of Central Florida/Metro Orlando


University of Central Florida (UCF) President Dr. John C. Hitt has been instrumental in helping to shape economic development in Metro Orlando.


Hitt, who serves on the board of the Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission, realizing Florida’s critical shortage of doctors and the impact on the region, proposed a UCF medical school.  The projected opening is the fall of 2008, with an impact of as much as $6.4 billion and near 26,000 jobs if a life-science cluster of related research and business develops around the medical school.


UCF includes economic development as a key in mission, and has an overarching goal to be “America’s leading partnership university.”  UCF established the Office of Economic Development in 2000 and collaboratively works with the Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission to train the future’s workforce.  Together, they saw digital media as an emerging new industry and created a new graduate program – the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy.


Clemson University/Upstate South Carolina


A research leader in advanced materials, automotive engineering, bioengineering and genomics, Clemson University, a nationally recognized Top 30 public research university, is committed to economic development through a knowledge-based economy, moving research from the laboratory to the marketplace, focusing on matching existing research strengths with existing economic strengths. 


Clemson’s International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR), in Greenville, S.C., is a new model for economic development in South Carolina, matching Clemson’s strengths in automotive research with the state’s strong automotive cluster.  CU-ICAR is a 250-acre “technopolis” where BMW, Michelin, Timken, SUN and other corporate partners are focusing on automotive research and other transportation issues.  The state of South Carolina is also a key partner, creating legislation to support economic development initiatives and innovation.  For example, the state’s Centers of Economic Excellence Program matches private funding with state funding to recruit top faculty to South Carolina.  CU-ICAR has four endowed chairs created through the program.


To date, CU-ICAR has generated nearly $215 million in public and private investment.


Virginia Institute of Technology/the Roanoke Valley


In 1882, enterprising railroad magnate Frederick J. Kimball chose it as the site of a railroad juncture and a major city.  He built his “vision of a comprehensive community,” with the Hotel Roanoke as its grand centerpiece.


Now, the Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center is operated by Virginia Institute of Technology, and boasts 63,000 square feet of state-of-the-art conference space and accommodates 1,200 guests.


Virginia Tech, with its main campus in Blacksburg, is a centerpiece of economic vitality in the Roanoke region, creating more innovative partnerships that help drive economic development.


Virginia Tech is a partner with the Carilion Clinic and the University of Virginia in the Carilion Biomedical Institute (CBI), with a vision is to bring together a world-class health system to solve medical-related problems.  The plan is to establish a Clinical Research Institute in the City of Roanoke’s Riverside Center, a 27-acre business research and medical park.


Virginia Tech also maintains a significant presence at the Roanoke Higher Education Center, a unique facility that houses programs of 15 colleges and universities under one roof.


University of Kentucky/Lexington


A 2006 benchmarking survey of early-stage companies in the Lexington region revealed that University of Kentucky’s Office of Commercialization and Economic Development (OCED) has had a positive impact on the region’s economy.


Fifty-four early-stage companies received more than $35 million in funding in 2006; that more than 70 percent of these companies are high-tech industries; that they hired more than 100 people with an average salary of $61,700; and that 60 percent are based on research or collaboration with UK.


Programs in the OCED include: two on-campus incubators; the 735-acre Coldstream Research campus, designed for recruiting high-tech and biotech companies; on-campus commercialization and business services; Bluegrass Angels, a partnership between UK and private investors to provide the early-stage capital and mentoring for technology-based businesses; and an innovative partnership between the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, Commerce Lexington and UK that provides one-stop services for entrepreneurs, company recruitment and business growth.

Tennessee Valley Authority 


Marion, AR

 Opelika, AL

Winston-Salem, NC

Northeast Tennessee Valley

 Old Dominion Electric Cooperative

Tupelo, MS

Mid America Industrial Park 

Aiken, SC

 New Braunfels, TX

Martinsville-Henry County, VA 

Alabama Development Office 

Little Rock, AR

Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway

The Memphis Region

Roanoke, VA


Entergy Louisiana 

North Carolina

South Carolina

Tunica County, MS

Columbus, MS


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