By Linda P.B. Katehi
Since Congress passed the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980, allowing universities and other institutions to retain title to inventions and breakthroughs discovered under federally funded research, UC Davis and other universities have been steadily creating start-up companies and incubators.
Today, with a $4 billion annual budget that includes more than $700 million in research and $1.5 billion in clinical activities, UC Davis is the region’s largest employer, after state government. All told, UC Davis is responsible for $7 billion a year in annual economic activity and supports nearly 70,000 jobs. It generates more than $3.4 billion a year in employee pay alone. With our role as employer, purchaser, real-estate and workforce developer, collaborator and facilitator, UC Davis is arguably the most dynamic economic development engine in the region. Since we now receive about $340 million in state funding, that’s an impressive return on investment of more than 20:1.
But even with the state’s share of our operating revenues in historical decline, we know we can and must do more. Davis and every other healthy community needs a steady infusion of attractive employment opportunities to remain healthy and provide jobs so its young men and women aren’t compelled to move away to find work, start careers and build families. That’s why we have worked more aggressively across the entire university to support commercial ventures based on discoveries made by our researchers.
In 2011, we launched the Child Family Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. It brings together researchers in science and engineering with faculty from our Graduate School of Management, investors and corporate leaders to support technology transfer and commercialization activities. Two years later, we started our Venture Catalyst program in the Office of Research. The program directly supports and trains campus entrepreneurs, conducts outreach to the Davis and Sacramento business, governmental and economic development communities and provides funding for translational research where other support isn’t available.
Along the same lines, our Engineering Translational Technology Center is a nationally-acclaimed technology incubator that is speeding high-impact and innovative ideas by UC Davis faculty and researchers to the marketplace. And last fall, we were one of the first universities in the nation to create a dedicated on-campus space for students to create prototypes of their ideas and collaborate on technology ventures. We call it the Engineering Student Startup Center, and it provides a dedicated space for our students to work together on their ventures along with the latest technology—3D printers, for example—to literally give shape to their innovative ideas.
We have more initiatives underway and more will come down the road. These are efforts that support job creation in Davis, as well as regionally and nationally. But even more valuable may be the life-saving and life-enhancing innovations put out into society where they can do the most good.
Our work is ongoing and far from complete, but our stepped-up efforts are paying off. In the last fiscal year, UC Davis helped launch 14 commercial startup companies. That’s up from eight the previous year. One of those is Tule Technologies, which is developing a monitoring system based on UC Davis technology that allows growers to use water more efficiently, an important step forward as California copes with a devastating draught. Another recent startup is Vivita Technologies, based here in Davis. The company is building biotech innovations to boost accessibility and reduce the cost of organ transplants.
San Francisco-based Dysonics was the first startup to emerge from the Engineering and Translational Technology Center. The company, founded by a faculty member, former research scientist and a UC Davis graduate, has developed a headphone technology that provides a more dynamic and richer listening experience, producing 3-D immersive sound through headphones.
In total, 62 startups based on inventions originating at UC Davis have been formed since 2003, resulting in the creation of hundreds of high-value jobs in Davis and across our region. With plans moving forward on several fronts in and around Davis to add development space for companies based on science and technology innovations, we see even greater opportunities for the university to have a positive impact on economic development right here in our own community.
In addition to start-up companies, we have created a number of public-private partnerships with great promise, such as the new Innovation Institute for Food and Health, a Partnership with Mars Incorporated announced last year and launched this past January. The Institute is designed to deliver big-impact breakthroughs in food, agriculture and health. Mars has committed to invest at least $40 million over ten years, with UC Davis adding $20 million through facilities, staff and other services.
We developed another successful partnership with CleanWorld, LLC. Based on technology developed by UC Davis Professor Ruihong Zhang and announced last April, this collaboration aims to commercialize the Renewable Energy Anaerobic Digester developed by Professor Zhang. Her “Biodigester” can turn 50 tons of organic waste each day into renewable energy, divert 20,000 tons annually from landfills, reduce greenhouse emissions by 13,500 tons annually and generate 5.6 million kilowatt hours per year. CleanWorld LLC. is opening other facilities using Zhang’s technology, thus advancing state and national goals to increase the use of renewable energy.
And last September, we announced plans to develop a 70-acre solar farm with SunPower Corp on a site south of Interstate 80. This facility will open in June and generate 14 percent of campus electricity needs, making it the largest solar power installation in the UC system.
These are exciting times and opportunities for our university and for our region. California’s economy is growing again after the last devastating downturn. Pillars of the future economy such as high-tech, clean energy, public health and food-related innovation and health care are core strengths for UC Davis. We’ve taken concrete steps to become more nimble and creative in turning our discoveries into commercial enterprises. I could not be more hopeful about working with our friends and partners in the public and private sectors to make our community, region and state more prosperous.