Voices of Alaska: UA investing in innovation, incubators, entrepreneurial programs

  • By Jim Johnsen
  • Wednesday, February 21, 2018 9:34am
  • Opinion

For many years, universities have competed for talented students by promoting academic programs, affordability, athletic teams, and campus life. Those elements remain a part of campus recruitment, but today smart students are increasingly making choices based on a university’s innovation and entrepreneurship programs.

There’s no doubt that a community that values innovation is good for our students, our community partners, and our state. At the University of Alaska, we recognize that investing in innovation and aggressively supporting applied learning is critical. That’s why we’re focused on more innovation in our business and engineering programs, course design, labs and maker spaces, and why we are launching start-up competitions and hackathons. Innovation generates wonderful ideas and great societal leaps, and more importantly, it creates new businesses, inventions, patents, and jobs.

The university’s Board of Regents has made economic development one of its top goals for higher education in Alaska. Our budget includes investment in innovative programs at our university campuses in Anchorage [UAA], Fairbanks [UAF], and Juneau [UAS] that drive regional and statewide economic development.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks is globally recognized for its Arctic-related research programs and faculty; and, in a number of centers and research offices at our other campuses, the university is working to make life better for Alaskans. One emphasis is on commercializing our research to support economic diversification and the creation of new jobs and small businesses in Alaska.

That’s why this week, we’re launching the Center for Innovation, Commercialization, and Entrepreneurship (Center ICE) at UAF. Center ICE is an innovation hub designed to accelerate innovation, promote economic diversification, and encourage entrepreneurialism in the University of Alaska system. The first Center ICE class will consist of five university spinoff companies and approximately 10 individual innovators and entrepreneurs. The intellectual property produced at the university represents great potential to benefit the private sector.

Center ICE will contribute to the university’s broader innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem, and is partnering with Alaskan mentors, investors, and entrepreneurs as well as organizations like the Small Business Development Center, the Launch Alaska business accelerator in Anchorage, the Fairbanks Economic Development Corporation, and UAA’s Business Enterprise Institute. Initially, the center will be on the UAF campus, but the long term plan is to move it off campus to a place in the Fairbanks community. This new phase also will include a research park for collaborating with industry partners while also continuing to support university spinoffs, which will benefit from the opportunity to network with industry.

This addition to our already innovative capabilities is important. World-class researchers and innovators at the University of Alaska have developed new products, processes, and innovations in a number of areas including fighting cancer with nanoparticles, working on the capture and conversion of methane gas into energy and the development of hydro-technologies, creating and patenting a tiny infrasound sensor sensitive enough to detect volcanic eruptions or nuclear explosions from distant locations, studying carbon cycling and distribution in coastal forests, and so much more.

Recently, I announced the inaugural President’s Innovation Challenge at UAA. This challenge is designed to encourage students to partner with Anchorage community and business members to solve community problems through an innovative solution, whether an app, a policy recommendation, or a new business. This year’s challenge calls on UAA students to work with community and business partners. UAA’s Center for Economic Development will lead the challenge, mentoring participants throughout the process, and we’re excited to see what the teams create.

The Invent Alaska competition is also underway at UAF and UAS, which rewards winners with support to commercialize their innovations. It’s easy to see that the university is committed to innovation and entrepreneurship and we believe these programs are tremendous opportunities for both students and community members.

More than 500 colleges and universities have established programs specifically focused on innovation and entrepreneurship. At the University of Alaska, our ranks include Carnegie Fellows, Truman Scholars, UA Scholars, Fulbright Scholars, and Rhodes Scholars. These bright Alaskans will become tomorrow’s leaders, creating new technologies that meet needs and create opportunities.

From the beginning, Alaska’s climate and harsh environment demanded that we innovate simply to survive. This spirit drives innovation at the University of Alaska.

I am proud of our progress, but like many Alaskans, I am concerned about our future. That’s why the university is leading the way in creating the innovative and dynamic Alaska we all want. Going forward, you will see even more emphasis on innovation, entrepreneurship, research parks, and business incubators. At the University of Alaska, we see the opportunity, and we are all in. Join us to create a bright future for Alaska.

Jim Johnsen is the 14th president of the University of Alaska.

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