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SIU partners with UM on major economic development portal

March 28, 2019

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. – Southern Illinois University will play a major role in an innovative economic development effort aimed at helping businesses and entrepreneurs in Missouri as well as central and southern Illinois have better access to the expertise of its faculty, students and other resources.

In collaboration with the University of Missouri, SIU is helping create an “Innovation Exchange,” which is essentially a web portal that facilitates communication between business and the universities.

Connecting businesses to universities, thanks to grant funding

The effort is funded with a matching grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, which will pour in about $700,000 equal to the time and cash the SIU and UM systems have invested in securing the $1.4 million effort.

The portal not only will help business and entrepreneurs access expertise, but also help graduate students find important internships and employment opportunities, said Robert Patino, director of the Office of Technology Transfer at SIU.

“Our faculty will be able to respond to research challenges easily and compete for them on a competitive basis,” said Patino, who helped organize the effort to win the federal grant. “Students working for faculty will have access to industry mentorship, increasing the likelihood that they will get a job in their field of research.”

By the time the grant ends, officials expect to have created about 25 to 35 conventional jobs and 50 student opportunities annually.  Those numbers are expected to rise as adoption of the portal increases.

A bridge to encourage economic development

SIU and the UM together employ more than 4,000 research and development-focused faculty, and perform more than $400 million in externally funded work in those areas each year. The Innovation Interchange program will help bridge the traditional gap between industry, academic institutions and regional resources that radiate around St. Louis’ vibrant business community, which includes many bioscience, technology and advanced manufacturing companies.

The portal can support anything from small or start-up companies to large industrial giants while helping younger faculty develop new relationships with industry. It also will make collaborations among SIU faculty easier, Patino said.

“For example, if a School of Medicine faculty member needs an engineer with memory shape alloy expertise, or a pharmacist with drug delivery knowledge, they can use the portal to quickly find that expert and engage in the collaboration,” he said.

An ambitious future

UM will start out running the program. By the end of the grant cycle, however, the two university systems will create a non-profit organization with a board of directors. A director and staff will be hired to operate the web portal and administer the program going forward.

The effort will help SIU overcome challenges it faces in working with large companies and getting them to invest resources in its campuses, Patino said. Although the university creates significant amounts of intellectual property, getting industry to adopt or license such technology isn’t always easy because it doesn’t always fit neatly with a company’s needs.

“In other words, sometimes there is no business case to bring the technology in-house and SIU is then left with the hope that the faculty member will create a startup company to incubate the technology further to make it a better, more commercial candidate,” he said.

Vital collaboration

The new model funded by the grant creates more of a “pull” than a “push” for intellectual property, Patino said. Using this approach, SIU faculty will have the opportunity to solve relevant problems that industry is already facing, increasing the likelihood that intellectual property generated would be of interest to them.

Partnering with UM is a win-win for the universities, as well, Patino said.

“Together, the two university systems will have the critical mass needed to make the project attractive and successful,” he said. “And this program is scalable, meaning, we can bring more universities into the fold and many more companies into the fold as time goes on.”