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Updated: January 13, 2020 5 to Watch in 2020

Under Katsouleas, 2020 will mark beginning of innovation, research ramp up at UConn

HBJ Photo | Sean Teehan University of Connecticut President Thomas Katsouleas.
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If all goes according to University of Connecticut President Thomas Katsouleas’ plan, the next decade at UConn will be defined largely by innovation, research and working with industry and state actors on workforce-development issues.

At his first board of trustees meeting after replacing outgoing UConn President Susan Herbst last August, Katsouleas said he wanted to bolster UConn’s position as a research university, and put it on track to becoming a destination for entrepreneurs and researchers intent on creating and commercializing new products.

In an interview about plans for his first full year leading UConn, Katsouleas said he’ll focus in 2020 on laying the foundation for his long-term goal of doubling annual research funding at the university from its current level of about $265 million to $500 million within the next 10 years.

That will include spending time talking to various constituencies, including students, faculty and legislators about what a built-up research and entrepreneurship institution should look like, and what metrics the administration should use to measure success.

One of the biggest obstacles standing between Katsouleas and his plan to reinvent UConn as a rival to innovation powerhouses like Stanford University and MIT is the school’s multibillion-dollar unfunded pension liability.

That liability, which cost UConn and UConn Health $52 million in 2019 alone, makes the school a more expensive place for entrepreneurs to base their operations compared to other research universities, putting it at a disadvantage in attracting grant-funded researchers.

“We cannot achieve our goal of doubling research and scholarship if we don’t remove that disadvantage,” he said.

Katsouleas said a long-term plan needs to be developed to deal with the liability, but he’s putting a temporary solution in place for this year.

Beginning this month, the school is using about $4 million from its academic budget to offset the fringe costs researchers incur when working out of UConn facilities, he said.

“That’s the plan, to mitigate the effect of the pension liability on those researchers submitting grants,” said Katsouleas, who noted that the plan is a Band-Aid, not a permanent fix, since it involves reprioritizing funds meant for other things. “It’s not something we think we can do year after year. You can defer some investment in a laboratory repair, but you can only defer it for so long.”

That temporary measure would be in addition to a $20-million plan the school recently aired 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.

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.

The rest of the money would come from philanthropic giving.

A $22.5 million gift from Peter J. Werth, a philanthropist and founder of generic drug company ChemWerth Inc., will also bolster Katsouleas’ plans to expand innovation, he said.

In addition to its pension liability, UConn also faces the threat of future funding cuts from the state legislature, as lawmakers still face the possibility of budget deficits, especially if a recession hits.

Boosting workforce

Helping the state’s workforce-development efforts is also on Katsouleas’ 2020 agenda.

The idea of higher education and industry working together to develop Connecticut’s workforce has been a key focus for Gov. Ned Lamont, and in his first few months as president, Katsouleas said he has made an effort to engage with the business community, meeting with the heads of major Connecticut companies like Pratt & Whitney, Stanley Black & Decker and Synchrony Financial.

He’s also an ex-officio member of the Governor’s Workforce Council, which will be presenting a new comprehensive workforce-development strategy for the state by the end of the year.

“I’ve been getting a message from all of the CEOs I’ve met with about how important UConn is to their workforce development, and to their research,” Katsouleas said. “Working together, we can do workforce development that meets the needs for the entire state, but also leaves no demographic of our workforce behind in that process.”

Katsouleas has also been talking to UConn Hartford Director Mark Overmyer-Velazquez about growth opportunities at that campus, which was established in 2017. While no plans are solid yet, Katsouleas said he sees the Hartford campus as a success so far, and shifting additional programs there makes sense for some majors.

Big move to Big East

One of the big storylines of 2020 will be UConn’s move back to the Big East conference for all sports except football, which will become an independent program for the foreseeable future.

The move from the American Athletic Conference (AAC) will cost the school $17 million in AAC exit fees.

Students are excited about the move, Katsouleas said. Re-joining the Big East means the resumption of regional rivalries for basketball, and Katsouleas said he is confident in Athletic Director David Benedict’s ability to come up with future football schedules that could draw crowds, now that the program will no longer have a conference schedule.

Next year will also mark the beginning of a free tuition program Katsouleas announced in October that will provide students whose families have an annual income of $50,000 or less with the ability to come to the school tuition-free.

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