Inside USTAR: A Web of Commercialization

In 2017, as many as six communication satellites could begin transmitting weather data to Earth, vastly improving storm warning systems across the globe. The first of the state-of-the-art hyperspectral atmospheric sensors to collect that data was developed by the Utah State University Advanced Weather Systems Laboratory and funded by the Utah Science, Technology and Research initiative.


“The severe weather satellite program, called STORM, is a $135 million development project that has huge potential,” says USTAR Executive Director Ted McAleer. “We have the contract to build the first sensor, and we are hoping to get contracts to build all six sensors. If we can go from one sensor to six that project becomes massive in scope, blossoming into a $700 million project.”

STORM is one of many USTAR-funded commercialization projects McAleer and his team are directing from outreach centers servicing 20 of the state’s 29 counties. Other projects include a “Clean Coke” processing facility in Price, which upgrades waste coals to make a cleaner burning fuel by controlling pollutant emission levels; Vaporsens, a University of Utah (U of U) spinout whose technology provides improved explosives and narcotics detection; iUtah (Innovative Urban Transitions and Aridregion Hydro-sustainability), which is a collaborative, statewide effort dedicated to maintaining and improving water sustainability in Utah; WaxyCrude, focused on enabling the Uintah Basin to double oil production every 10 years for the next 30 years; and SpiderSilk, a Utah State University (USU) innovative advanced material project the produces fibers 100 times stronger than natural ligaments and 10 times stronger than natural tendons. Another exciting project housed at the USTAR supported BioInnovations Gateway incubator is Veristride, a U of U project seeking to help lower-limb amputees and older adults improve mobility

USTAR, formed in 2006 to leverage the proven successes of the state’s research universities, provides funds to help recruit talented research teams, builds state-of-the-art research facilities and assists in commercialization processes. USTAR draws from best practices of other states such as Georgia, Pennsylvania and Arizona, and is structured with three main elements.

The first is to provide funding that accelerates the ability of the U of U and USU to recruit world-class researchers, specifically into high-growth focus areas like energy and biomedical innovations. Second, USTAR enabled the construction of two state-of-the-art interdisciplinary research and development facilities on the U of U and USU campuses. Thirdly, the initiative operates outreach teams across the state to help entrepreneurs and existing companies commercialize new technology and access the resources available at higher education institutions.

Today, the USTAR initiative comprises 35 faculty members at the U of U, 16 faculty members at USU and teams within four innovation centers. It stands out as an award-winning economic development engine and earlier this year received the “Expanding Research Capacity” award from the State Science and Technology Institute (SSTI), which recognized the initiative as one of six national models for states investing in science, technology and innovation to grow their economies and create high-paying jobs.

“Since its inception, USTAR has enhanced Utah’s research capacity by skillfully connecting private, public and higher education assets in the state,” said Dan Berglund, SSTI president and CEO. “Through USTAR’s efforts, the state has recruited numerous world-class researchers, increased R&D funding attraction and spurred economic growth.”

USTAR is the sixth organization to win the award since the introduction of the awards program in 2007, and McAleer considers it an acknowledgment to the foresight and commitment of the state’s lawmakers and business community. “It gives me great pride that USTAR has been recognized by a committee of our peers and by a national association of professionals that study economic development best practices. We are fortunate to have the continued support of Gov. Gary R. Herbert and the state legislature. They see USTAR as a technology-based economic engine for the state.”

Diversified Economy
In the seven years since USTAR was created, the organization has accelerated the commercialization of research and is improving the competitiveness of existing industries in the state by spinning out new technologies.

“We are excited the state continues to focus on technology-based economic development as well as traditional economic development,” McAleer says. “USTAR has proven that it is one of the national leaders in technology-based economic development.”

Before USTAR, Utah’s entrepreneurs developing innovative technologies faced greater challenges to take their ideas through the proof-of-concept stage to manufacturable prototypes and revenue growing companies, says McAleer. Today, USTAR’s Outreach Centers service entrepreneurs, industry and the other stakeholders who bring new innovations along the value chain of idea to revenue.

USTAR’s outreach program is divided into four regions, each of which is anchored by a regional university. The northern Utah outreach program is led out of Weber State University and covers the area from Salt Lake City to the state’s northern border. The central region is facilitated by Utah Valley University (UVU) in Orem. The southern region covers 11 counties and is facilitated by Dixie State University in St. George, with a satellite office at Southern Utah University in Cedar City. The eastern region is led out of Vernal at USU’s Bingham Entrepreneurship and Energy Research Center with a satellite office in the Carbon Energy Innovation Center, which is a USU facility in Price.

McAleer says each of the regional universities has a significant role in determining and facilitating the types of technology-based economic development efforts that are appropriate for each region. For example, an acceleration center at Weber State University focuses on the outdoor products and aerospace industries. Meanwhile, UVU has an accelerator focused on the information technology and digital media industries.

“Our facilities in eastern Utah are focused on facilitating both the coal region of Price as well as the conventional and unconventional fuel regions of the Uintah Basin,” McAleer notes. “Our facilities in the southern region work with a range of technologies. Our Information Technology and Renewable Energy Incubator characterizes the way we think about that work. We have a host of information technology projects as well as renewable energy projects in the southern region.”

This week, McAleer and his team will host board members from the Industrial Asset Management Council (IAMC), who will be in Salt Lake City for the IAMC Fall Forum. His message to the group of site selectors and corporate asset managers is that USTAR is an economic driver focused on investing in the research and commercialization capacity of Utah’s research universities.

“We have an eye on the future as well as today,” he says.