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Updated: December 9, 2019

UConn airs $20M faculty-recruitment plan to grow research, entrepreneurship

Photo | Peter Morenus/UConn Radenka Maric, UConn’s vice president for research, innovation and entrepreneurship (right), looks over membrane samples with graduate students Thomas Ebaugh and Ryan Ouimet at the school’s Center for Clean Energy Engineering.
UConn’s bioscience talent 
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New UConn President Thomas Katsouleas set an ambitious goal in February to double research funding at the state’s flagship university over the next decade.

Now, we have our first glimpse into how he hopes to make that happen. And a key part of the strategy includes attracting top new talent to the university.

UConn is quietly pitching a $20-million plan to recruit and hire 10 experienced entrepreneurial faculty over the next five years.

The so-called Academic Entrepreneurship initiative aims to hire proven life-sciences scholars, innovators and entrepreneurs who can help the school ramp up commercialization of discoveries made by faculty and students.

Part of the investment includes seeding each new hire with a $1-million startup fund that could be used for new equipment, lab space, supplies and other resources.

The goal would be for the faculty to pay for themselves over time by winning research funding from corporate and federal sources, and launching job-creating startups.

To help underwrite the plan, UConn is looking for a $10-million investment from the Connecticut Bioscience Innovation Fund (CBIF), which provides financial assistance to push bioscience breakthroughs to market and is overseen by the state’s quasi-public venture investor, Connecticut Innovations. UConn Vice President of Research Radenka Maric recently pitched the proposal to CBIF’s board, hoping to garner support.

The rest of the money would come from philanthropic giving, Maric said.

The plan, obtained by the Hartford Business Journal through a Freedom of Information request, says recruiting “star faculty” will create a culture change for the university as it also works to secure more grant funding, develop new accelerator programs, and forge new partnerships with Farmington’s Jackson Laboratory, UConn Health, Yale University and other research-intensive institutions.

“The availability of skilled talent is arguably the most critical element of a robust innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem,” the proposal said. “With the arrival of President Katsouleas at UConn, who is placing a laser focus on research and innovation, the timing could not be better.”

HBJ Photo | Sean Teehan
UConn President Thomas Katsouleas addresses the university’s board of trustees at an August meeting.

UConn’s entrepreneurial resume

Katsouleas’ vision is to put UConn on a path to becoming a higher-education mecca for innovators looking to advance research, make discoveries and commercialize those inventions. His plan is to double annual research funding in the next 10 years from about $265 million to $500 million.

UConn has already raised its profile over the last few decades as a research institution, spending billions of dollars to boost its R&D infrastructure, including adding new lab space and technology buildings, and expanding its engineering department and enrollment as well as entrepreneurial education for undergrads.

That’s translated into more research dollars and economic activity.

In 2017, the school reported $184 million in total research expenditures, which was up 28 percent from a decade earlier, according to a recent survey by the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM).

In 2017, UConn also generated 46 patents, 45 new patent applications and three new startups, the AUTM survey found.

The school also averages about 87 active licenses annually.

Still, UConn is far behind many larger research schools. For example, Stanford had over $1 billion in research expenditures in 2017 and $45 million in license revenue, while MIT recorded $1.7 billion in research expenditures and $33 million in license revenue that year.

UConn’s research-growth ambitions also face a major challenge: A multibillion-dollar unfunded pension liability that makes the school a more expensive place for entrepreneurs to base their operations compared to other research universities.

Maric, an experienced startup entrepreneur and inventor herself, said hiring renowned entrepreneurs or university researchers as faculty will increase UConn’s funding pool for research and improve the state’s profile as an innovation destination.

“This is just another phase of expanding on those entrepreneurial activities and growth of jobs and the entrepreneurial impact UConn will have on the state of Connecticut,” she said.

Photo | Contributed
The UConn campus in Storrs.

Growth blueprint

Despite advances made at UConn’s Technology Incubator Program (TIP) in Farmington, which had 39 startups in 2018 that raised $100 million, the state and school have significant room to grow their national entrepreneurial footprint, Maric said.

That’s where new “innovation professors” would come into play.

According to UConn’s proposal, the high-caliber talent would work to beef up Connecticut’s world-wide recruitment strategy, grow local ventures and encourage private investment through newly developed incentive packages, accelerators and collaborations with research institutions and medical-device companies in the state.

If approved, UConn would form a search committee to start hiring entrepreneurial faculty within six months. The search team would then work with entrepreneurial booster CTNext and the offices of Katsouleas and Gov. Ned Lamont to determine market opportunities for the products and technologies that come along with new hires.

A second phase of the initiative includes renovating and expanding a full floor of entrepreneurial labs at the UConn School of Medicine building in Farmington. The 30,000 square feet of TIP labs across the street from the medical school would also be used by innovators, Maric said.

Two or three faculty would be selected to lead academic entrepreneurship.

“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the university to leapfrog its peers … ,” the plan states.

UConn is scheduled to present the proposal Dec. 13 to CBIF’s sub-committee, which could then recommend putting it up for a board vote.

The $10-million request would mark CBIF’s largest-ever deal. As of June, CBIF had committed $84 million to support 50 companies and 11 not-for-profits.

Matthew McCooe, CEO, Connecticut Innovations

Connecticut Innovations CEO Matthew McCooe, one of 13 CBIF board members, said UConn’s request is “very unusual” and will face a fair amount of scrutiny.

But McCooe said he supports the plan because the timing is ideal for UConn to pursue millions of dollars in new research funding due to Katsouleas’ arrival.

“I’m confident it will work out,” he said. “The new president is asking for a war chest to go and compete to recruit the most talented faculty across the globe. What’s not to like about that?”

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