Utah moved up three spots, from no. 8 to no. 5, in the Milken Institute’s 2018 State Technology and Science Index, a biannual report that measures states’ science and technology capabilities and competitiveness that contribute to high-skills job creation and economic growth.
The top four states—Massachusetts, Colorado, Maryland, and California—were unchanged from the 2016 index. Utah was the only new member of the top five.
“It is a promising indicator to see Utah take its place among the giants like Massachusetts and California in Milken’s reporting,” said Barbara Araneo, Ph.D., senior director of scientific affairs and emerging technologies for the Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative (USTAR).
The report assesses each state’s research and development (R&D) inputs, risk capital and entrepreneurial infrastructure, human capital investment, technology and science workforce, and technology concentration and dynamism.
According to the Milken Institute, the common underlying theme among states that performed well was their commitment to long-term economic development strategies and adapting programs when necessary, such as USTAR’s own programmatic shifts that occurred in 2016.
“The success stories of states profiled in this year’s index reflect sustained efforts to not only build but to maintain their ecosystem,” said Kevin Klowden, executive director of the Milken Institute Center for Regional Economics. “Making the changes that are necessary to perform well on the State Technology and Science Index can contribute to stronger long-term economic performance.”
“Utah has done several things that make it an innovation leader,” said Dan Berglund, president and CEO of SSTI (the State Science and Technology Institute), a national nonprofit organization dedicated to improving initiatives that support prosperity through science, technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship.
“The state has made smart investments around research and development, especially around applied research centers through USTAR, encouraging commercialization and technology-transfer at universities, and supporting the growth of innovative small businesses. Utah also has built a strong talent pipeline through its schools, colleges, and career-training programs,” said Berglund.
The University of Utah also led the country for commercializing university research and development. Further highlighting the importance of collaborative effort in moving Utah’s innovation economy forward, USTAR played a pivotal role in supporting numerous startups spun-out of the University of Utah, such as IDbyDNA, FARhang Wireless, Nanosynth, Majelco, Accubreath, and RefloDx, among others.
While the rankings highlighted Utah’s performance in the Milken report, innovation leaders cautioned about becoming too complacent with the state’s economic performance.
Keith Marmer, executive director of the University of Utah’s Center for Technology and Venture Commercialization, stressed the needed for broader, statewide support in Utah’s deep technology sectors, such as life sciences.
“The rankings are fabulous,” Marmer said in an interview with Deseret News. “Utah’s tech sector is booming and our Silicon Slopes’ companies are thriving…with the big Qualtrics deal just the latest evidence of that.
“There are key clusters we’re still working hard to build capital interest in. High rankings are great, but I worry they could instill a false sense of security that we have all the capital we need…and we don’t.”
Marmer also stressed the need to ensure Utah is not losing tech talent to other states with strong innovation economies. “[W]hen you drill down, you want to know where the next great entrepreneurs are coming from. We want to know that our bench strength is growing,” he said.
According to a Department of Workforce Services report released earlier this year, Utah tech wages are lagging behind, even when adjusted for cost-of-living differences, against cities such as San Francisco and San Jose in California; Raleigh, North Carolina; Austin, Texas; Seattle; or New York.
“If people are getting pulled out of Utah, where is that next wave of talent coming from? We have a strong base but we can’t get complacent about it,” stressed Marmer.
Dr. Araneo of USTAR emphasized the need for Utah to remain diligent and proactive in identifying future opportunities for technology growth.
“USTAR is proud of our role in promoting long-term strategic development of Utah’s deep tech economy,” said Araneo. “To sustain Utah’s prized position in the innovation economy that was highlighted by the Milken report, it is critical that we build on our successes and improve where there are gaps in the ecosystem, especially for deep tech industries. We need a comprehensive, diverse, state-wide strategic plan that fosters growth in all of Utah’s tech sectors.