The Utah Science Technology and Research initiative (USTAR) is a long-term, state-funded investment to strengthen Utah’s “knowledge economy.” The initiative invests in world-class innovation teams and research facilities at the University of Utah (U of U) and Utah State University (USU), to create novel technologies that are subsequently commercialized through new business ventures.

Based on best practices of other states in technology economic development, USTAR has built on unique Utah strengths to forge a new national benchmark in innovation and growth.

Over the past 20 years more than 180 companies in Utah have been founded on university technologies, and over 120 of those are currently prospering. Companies such as Myriad Genetics, HyClone Laboratories (now part of Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc.), Sorenson Communications and Anesta (acquired by Cephalon/Teva) are among those established and operating locally. This history of success is evidence that the U of U and USU can successfully commercialize technologies that create new companies and employment opportunities that strengthen Utah’s economy.

The Launch of USTAR

While USTAR was formed in March 2006 in the Huntsman/Herbert administration, the shift toward a stronger technology economy began in 2000, when then Gov. Michael Leavitt became concerned about a forecasted gap in the job market that presented a very real problem for the state. The average wage in Utah was eroding in comparison to other states.

It was not that Utah lacked jobs, but rather it lacked high paying jobs.

The governor identified high-tech jobs as the solution to this problem. From this was born the Governor’s Engineering Initiative. It was Leavitt’s plan to double the number of engineering and computer science students at Utah colleges and universities in just five years.

As the engineering workforce grew, high-tech industry began providing high-paying jobs to those graduates. In an effort to increase the innovation capital of Utah, leaders from the business community came together with government officials under the Huntsman/Herbert administration to create the USTAR initiative.

The initiative draws from best practices of other states such as Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Arizona. Now in its sixth year, USTAR is gaining recognition nationally as an effective, non-bureaucratic force for technology economic development. USTAR was recently featured in the National Governor’s Association’s Best Practices Guide. Also, due in part to USTAR’s efforts, the Milken Institute ranks Utah No. 5 in its 2010 national State Technology and Science index, up from No. 8, and Utah ranks high in the U.S. Chamber’s “Enterprising States” report. Nevada and Idaho have both initiated programs based on the USTAR model which is structured around three main elements.

The Elements of USTAR

First, USTAR provides funding that accelerates the ability of the U of U and USU to recruit world-class researchers, specifically into high-growth focus areas such as energy and biomedical innovations. Some 50 top all-star or “catalyst” researchers have moved to our two research institutions since 2007 as a direct result of the initiative.

Based on data for fiscal years 2007 to 2012, USTAR research teams have attracted $131 million in federal and industry-sponsored grant funding to the State with an additional $100 million in grant awards for programs such as EPSCoR, Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers (MRSEC) and STORM. This performance exceeds the goals in our 2005 Economic Prospectus by more than 70 percent.

USTAR research has yielded more than 330 invention disclosures with 185 patents and provisional patents filed to date. The team is responsible for 11 new companies and an additional 10+ projects are at various stages of incubation.

Second, the initiative enabled the construction of two state-of-the-art interdisciplinary research and development facilities at the Salt Lake City and Logan campuses. These buildings have added more than 300,000 square feet to the state’s “innovation infrastructure,” and house new advanced assets such as a BioSafety Level 3+ lab at USU and a comprehensive nanofabrication and imaging suite at the U of U.

Third, USTAR operates outreach teams across the state to help entrepreneurs and existing companies commercialize new technology and access the resources available at higher education institutions. USTAR regional outreach has conducted hundreds of projects with emerging businesses in 20 out of 29 counties, helping more than 40 new companies launch and new products to reach the market.

USTAR – the Economic “Fuel Additive”

USTAR is simply the collaboration and focus on innovation between the universities around Utah and the industry partners that has come together as part of this unique program. And it is the combination of facilities, human capital and entrepreneurial nature that sets Utah apart from other states.

One of the things Utah is well-known for is the collaborative and entrepreneurial nature of our people. We have a lot of start-up companies, and a lot of new ideas being generated in Utah. USTAR is like a fuel additive that makes a strong engine run faster. Ultimately, USTAR stands as an innovative, visionary, and far-reaching initiative to further bolster Utah’s high-technology economy, which has already become one the most dynamic around the world.

Ted McAleer is the Executive Director of USTAR. This originally appeared on KSL.com