Universities and Technology Transfers

Axcend co-founders Milton Lee, left, and Glen Mella pose with their Axcend liquid chromatography system prototype March 7, 2018. Axcend's birth as a business is an example of Utah's vibrant university technology transfer economy.

Utah’s continued economic strength pushed it to the 5th highest ranked state on the Milken Institute’s 2018 State Technology and Science Index.

The Milken Institute undertakes this study every two years to provide “a benchmark for policymakers to evaluate their state’s capabilities and formulate strategies for improving STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education, attracting businesses, and creating jobs in the tech sector.” An important factor in the report are the number of patents issued and doctoral degrees granted in each state.

The index looks at five different areas to rank the states: research and development inputs, risk capital and entrepreneurial infrastructure, human capital investment, technology and science workforce, and technology concentration and dynamism. Using these five key indicators, Utah jumped from No. 8 overall in 2016 to its current No. 5 spot.

“The success stories of states profiled in this year’s index reflect sustained efforts to not only build but to maintain their ecosystem,” said Kevin Klowden, executive director of the Milken Institute Center for Regional Economics, in a statement. “Making the changes that are necessary to perform well on the State Technology and Science Index can contribute to stronger long-term economic performance.”

This year, Utah earned the No. 1 rank for its technology concentration score — a ranking the state has held in every study since 2008 except one. In 2016, Utah’s numbers in all categories fell at least three spots. In the past two years, though, Utah jumped back up in every category, except for the technology workforce index. The state jumped three spots in both the research and development index and the risk capital index. In human capital investment, Utah jumped six spots, up from No. 11 in 2016.

Val Hale, executive director of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development, credits the state’s universities and Silicon Slopes’ tech boom for those high numbers.

“Were it not for our universities, our economy would not be where it is now,” Hale said. “When people ask me why our economy is doing so well, I point our universities.”

According to the report, Utah stood out for the success of its universities in spinning research into commercial ventures. The University of Utah always ranks well for its research and technology commercialization, Hale said. This is an important factor on the study, and in driving economies forward. Brigham Young University, though not known as a research university, is also a stand-out in the state, Hale said, because of the entrepreneurial students it produces.

“If you look at many of the tech companies within our state that have sprung up, a disproportionate amount of them — most of them — were founded by BYU students,” Hale said.

According to the report, Utah’s move to fifth was driven by tech sector employment growth, which is the fastest in the nation. The tech sector is thriving in multiple industries as well across the state. As the Milken study points out, with Utah’s recent introduction of its Pathways programs, the state had “15.43 new graduates in the science and engineering fields per 1,000 workers for the 2016-2017 academic year,” making it the top-performing state in that area.

“Investing in human capital and developing a STEM workforce is crucial for regional economies that want to attract large technology companies and the jobs they bring,” said Minoli Ratnatunga, Milken Institute’s director of regional economics research, in a statement.

While Utah ranked well, and has consistently done so since the study’s 2002 beginning, it still lags significantly behind top-ranked Massachusetts. The Bay State has held the study’s top rank since 2002. Massachusetts placed first on the research and development inputs, the risk capital and entrepreneurial infrastructure, and the human capital investment indexes.

According to the report, this is the second time Massachusetts’ rank has declined on the technology and science workforce index — Maryland holds the top rank for that index in 2018.

Karissa Neely reports on Business and North County events, and can be reached at 801-344-2537 or kneely@heraldextra.com.