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Op-ed: USTAR is still on track for success

By Greg Bell

First Published Jan 25 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Mar 24 2014 11:35 pm

When I served in the Legislature in 2006, we created the Utah Science Technology and Research (USTAR) initiative. We wanted USTAR to expand and accelerate the development of innovative technologies, which would build great companies and great jobs — in Utah.

Today, under the USTAR umbrella, 34 world-class faculty scientists and their teams are conducting world-leading research at the University of Utah in nanotechnology, digital media, energy technologies, biomedical devices, and imaging technologies. This research has businesses developing and selling high-tech products and services in multibillion-dollar worldwide markets.

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At Utah State University, 30 active USTAR-related research projects are underway, including promising work on highly advanced weather sensors, in-motion wireless power transfer for electric vehicles, advanced materials like "spider silk,’ and environmentally friendly carbon products. All of these have high commercialization potential.

All across the state, USTAR’s outreach program supports entrepreneurs and scientists in exciting research and business start-ups in aerospace, outdoor products, clean coal, information technology and manufacturing technologies.

These outreach programs, centered at Weber State University, Southern Utah University, Dixie State University, Utah Valley University, Salt Lake Community College, and research facilities in Price and Vernal, supported more than 200 projects in 21 of Utah’s 29 counties, just in 2012.

None of this research and development is being conducted solely for academic reasons. Every project is focused like a laser to create commercial value — spinning out businesses, creating jobs for Utahns, and contributing to Utah’s tax base.

It is an auspicious beginning for the 30-year USTAR initiative. In the first seven years, dozens of world-class scientists and their teams have been recruited to Utah and have initiated or continued promising and practical research. USTAR built (with state funding) two major research buildings, with the latest labs and equipment, at USU and the U. of U. Importantly, $285 million has been attracted in external funding. Moreover, USTAR projects have attracted an additional $151 million in engineering grants.

USTAR and the other critical elements of Utah’s business-friendly environment have built a solid foundation for homegrown Utah businesses with high-paying jobs in world-wide markets.

Gov. Gary Herbert recently appointed me as volunteer chair of the USTAR Governing Authority, comprising some of Utah’s leading business and civic leaders. One of my first tasks has been working with other members of the Governing Authority and USTAR staff to implement recommendations of a performance audit conducted by the Legislative Auditor’s Office.

The audit criticized some of USTAR’s administrative processes and questioned some of USTAR’s performance numbers. While we took issue with some of the audit findings, we are using it to help USTAR perform even better. The operational and administrative matters have been fully addressed. We engaged an independent audit firm, Tanner LLC, which verified USTAR’s performance on key metrics.

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The Tanner Report confirms that USTAR is operating ahead of schedule in most of the key areas of job growth, external funding, new companies, and increased tax revenue.

With the Utah Legislature starting its 2014 session Monday, we look forward to working with legislators to strengthen USTAR through legislation and continued funding. After seven years, it is an appropriate time to update statutes dealing with USTAR, and review USTAR’s progress and performance.

We encourage lawmakers to adopt the USTAR budget recommended by Gov. Herbert. After seven years of incredible work and some fine-tuning to ensure excellent performance, USTAR is poised to play a major role in keeping Utah’s economy strong with world-leading companies and high-paying jobs.

In future years, as meteorologists around the world save lives by accurately predicting the paths and severity of tornadoes and hurricanes, and as clean electric buses ply city streets charging wirelessly as they travel, Utahns may justly be proud that these exciting technologies originated in Utah, providing great jobs and economic value.

Greg Bell is USTAR Governing Authority chair and former Utah lieutenant governor.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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