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Leaders push new ‘innovation’ network to grow Utah’s economy. Here’s what it will do.

Newly created Wasatch Innovation Network is offering mentoring, advice and capital to help startup companies thrive in the Beehive State.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Astrid Tuminez, president of Utah Valley University, speaks at the launch of the newly formed Wasatch Innovation Network during a news conference Tuesday, July 13, 2021.

Utah’s business community is pushing to make the state a world-caliber place for entrepreneurs to nurture their new ideas and launch thriving companies.

Under the rubric of “innovation” — the notion of combining invention with business know-how — leaders have announced a major economic campaign as some pandemic worries begin to ease, focused on building a robust network of experts, shared vision and capital to better elevate startups and bigger firms as they emerge.

Utah’s economy continues to recover more rapidly than other states from damage inflicted by COVID-19, but officials believe this added push could help even more.

The Salt Lake Chamber, several major Utah universities and business leaders in some of the state’s fastest-growing sectors — such as biotech, aerospace, advanced manufacturing and artificial intelligence — unveiled plans Tuesday for what they’re calling the Wasatch Innovation Network, after discussing it since late last year.

The idea of helping businesses innovate might sound obvious or laden with buzzwords, but offering the right resources and economic conditions for startups and other firms to grow more quickly is complicated — especially as worldwide competition for talented workers and investors grows more and more intense.

“Utah cannot afford to be silent in this race, especially given our state’s ability and our global reach,” said the chamber’s CEO and president, Derek Miller. With the new campaign, “we will build a patchwork of individual successes into a network of prosperity.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Derek Miller, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber, speaks at the launch of the newly formed Wasatch Innovation Network during a news conference Tuesday, July 13, 2021.

The ultimate goals? Accelerating job growth with higher wages and drawing more talent to benefit residents across the region. “The time is right to now connect the whole along the Wasatch Front,” Miller said at a kickoff event held at 111 Main in downtown Salt Lake City to publicize the nascent effort.

This web of business mentors, venture capitalists, planners and lobbyists will reach across industries that might not otherwise swap information, with what Miller called “lateral connections.”

It will hone how leaders think about innovation so they agree on a vision to make Utah “a best-in-class entrepreneurial ecosystem.” Members will try to boost the private sector’s emphasis on new research and support. They will advise companies as they develop new products and services, and then help them find financial backing.

“Most startups fail, but there are those that have a habit of getting it right,” said Paul Ahlstrom, co-founder of TechBuzz News, a media outlet covering Utah’s technology sector. “As a community, we can come together to help improve these outcomes.”

“Innovation is the core of our economy,” Ahlstrom added. “It’s kind of innovate or die.”

Several backers noted Utah is seeking to cement an already strong position on fostering new business concepts and fledgling companies built on them, noting the explosive growth over two decades of its tech sector, which now accounts for nearly 1 in 7 jobs in the state and an estimated $30 billion in economic impact yearly.

“Utah’s key differentiator is its public-private partnerships and dynamic pioneering spirit that not only established it as the Crossroads of the West, but it is now garnering global attention,” said Brandon Fugal, chairman of Colliers International, a real estate firm.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Derek Miller, president and CEO of Salt Lake Chamber, speaks at the launch of the newly formed Wasatch Innovation Network during a news conference Tuesday, July 13, 2021.

The experience of Silicon Slopes, as the state’s tech enclave is called, shows how crucial it is to build a pipeline of innovations that can fuel new businesses. To that end, the Wasatch Innovation Network will also promote the transfer and licensing of new technologies dreamed up in labs and meeting rooms at the state’s universities more swiftly to market, while also helping higher education to continue creating Utah’s future entrepreneurs.

“We have all these wonderful words here, but let’s remember one thing,” said Astrid Tuminez, president of Orem’s Utah Valley University, a network partner. “None of this will happen without the right people, and we grow the right people in universities.”

Network members are vowing to lobby the state Legislature and municipal governments as well, toward improving public and higher education in Utah as well as transportation of all kinds, along with pressing for tax incentives for businesses and new tools to recruit talented workers.

At least 25 businesses, organizations and government agencies have signed on as key partners in the Wasatch Innovation Network, including several other regional business groups on the Wasatch Front, some of the state largest developers, venture capital firms, and the University of Utah and Weber State University.

Members said they also plan to push innovation as a vital piece of several major land developments now unfolding across the state. That includes the more than 600-acre business and housing center now being planned at Point of the Mountain in Draper, known as The Point; the Tech Lake City effort in Utah’s capital, aimed at spurring the health care sector; and the Falcon Hill Aerospace Research Park, a 550-acre defense-oriented development at Hill Air Force Base near Clearfield.

Instead of operating in silos, Miller said, business hubs at each of these locales will hopefully function together “as a network of incubation for new tech ideas, solutions and jobs for our citizens long into the future.”

Supporters described the new network as “inclusive” and powered by willing mentors who will “serve, connect and share what is needed,” added Ahlstrom, “for the next generation of ventures to succeed.”

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