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University tech transfer sparks regional economic development in Missouri

April/May 2012

Regional economic development and university technology transfer are not just functions of the University of Missouri's Life Science Business Incubator at Monsanto Place in Columbia, Mo. They are the bedrock on which the place was built.

Occupying a purpose-built lab-and-office structure between the university's Research Reactor and its main campus, the incubator opened in 2009. It is owned by the university but run by the Missouri Innovation Center, an organization of local civic and economic leaders and university officials. It currently houses 24 client companies, has a waiting list of prospective clients and operates a regional nonresident client program. The resident clientele is split among companies commercializing technology developed at the university and businesses that have no prior affiliation with the school.

The underpinnings for the university's involvement in local economic development came during the tenure of Elson Floyd, president of the school from 2003 to 2007, says Jake Halliday, president and CEO of Missouri Innovation Center and a business professor at the university. "He believed that in addition to the economic impact of the physical presence of the university, the full return could be gained by the spinoff of companies and the resulting economic development. He raised that to a full mission of the university, and that simple act has been a great enabler.

"It's the difference between hunting with a license and hunting without a license. In the past, academic researchers were close to punished for entrepreneurial activities. That's not the case anymore." As a result, Halliday says, "there's a huge participation by the faculty in translational research."

The university's focus on economic development has continued, with the Life Science incubator opening two years after Floyd's departure. The program has strong support from local banks and business groups and from a local angel capital fund that has an office at the incubator.

Clients of the Life Science incubator are treated as if they were departments of the university itself, getting in-school rates on services and assistance from other departments. The incubator also has a program where client companies can hire MBA candidates from the School of Business to help with business development. A patent attorney is on site one day each week as well. With access to research tools and experts from the university, even clients not initially involved with the school often forge a relationship and make plans based on staying in the region in the future.

"There's a free flow if interdisciplinary work here," Halliday says. "It's a very collaborative place." That, he says, is what he hopes will be part of the trick to keeping companies local after they graduate — the connection with the university, plus location in the center of the country and relatively low costs of living and doing business.

The Life Science incubator's client list mirrors the colleges of science at the university, with companies specializing in both human and veterinary medicine products, medical equipment, and agricultural innovations. —Dennis E. Powell

Keywords: stakeholder relationship management, technology commercialization, technology incubator, university partnerships

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