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University-Industry Engagement Advisor

Innovation voucher program provides financial support for industry partnerships


By David Schwartz
Published: February 25th, 2019

The University of Rhode Island Business Engagement Center, or BEC, has clearly impacted the development of university-industry collaborations in the state in a positive way. Established about five years ago, the “one-stop-shop” for Rhode Island companies, which BEC says it modeled after the engagement center at the University of Michigan, has hosted over 800 corporate campus visits and encouraged 220-plus corporations to support its programs.

One of the undertakings that has proved most beneficial for BEC is the Innovation Voucher Awards program, a state program administered by the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation (CommerceRI). It not only highlights projects developed as a partnership between corporations and university faculty and students, research centers, or medical centers in the state, but it also provides a financial incentive for those partnerships.

“The Voucher is a tool BEC uses to connect small businesses in Rhode Island who have a gap in R&D with the intellectual and research resources of the University of Rhode Island,” explains Katharine Hazard Flynn, executive director of the BEC.

The Voucher Awards are voted on and announced monthly at the CommerceRI Board meetings. This year, however, as part of its fifth anniversary, BEC had a showcase to celebrate the partnerships (20 in all) that have been awarded to date.

The awards program is a logical extension of the initial goals of the BEC. “About five years ago we had watched the University of Michigan open its Business Engagement Center, saw its success and tried to emulate it,” says Flynn. “They started just with their engineering college, but later expanded. We are smaller, so we decided to start ‘whole.’”

BEC, she explains, is a “concierge service” for industry partners. “Industry can make one phone call here and get what they need — labs, students, research,” she explains. While such a concept may not seem innovative, Flynn insists that it is. “Companies have a hard time navigating a university,” she notes. “We operate now on ‘industry time,’ as opposed to ‘academic time.’”

The voucher program began in 2014, she says, after Governor Gina Raimondo conducted “a state-wide tour [and] said there needed to be a way for our smaller businesses to access the universities and all their research capabilities.” In response, the CommerceRI team put the voucher program into place and provided a modest amount of funding for the first year.

“It was so popular they added to it,” Flynn says. The awards can be as high as $50,000 for a small business (under 500 employees) to access research, testing, and other university services.

Businesses that apply, she explains, “have to come to the table with a university investigator, and they put in a fairly simple application.” A committee at CommerceRI, comprised of individuals from different industry sectors, reviews the applications and makes recommendations, after which they go to their Board for a final decision.

“If the application is approved the money goes to the university, and the faculty member uses that money to help the company,” Flynn relates. Once the funds for the project have all been used, she adds, “the partnership has to do a report. In many cases they either get some follow-on funds from a federal or state agency or an investment firm. This helps foster the small business ecosystem in the state.”

This complete article appears in the February issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. For information on subscriptions — and a $100-off discount offer — CLICK HERE

Posted under: University-Industry Engagement Week

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