Open for business

UVU’s strategy for economic development starts with entrepreneurship

By Brad Plothow
UVU Magazine, Spring 2011 


                  It’s 7:30 a.m., and 40 of Utah’s top business leaders have descended on a room filled with eight round tables. Each person grabs a bagel or piece of fruit, finds a seat, and then the hum of conversation begins to grow. Around each table, discussion centers on something different, but everything is related to one end goal: spurring Utah’s economy. Bursts of insight are captured on worksheets and the poster boards that stand on easels near each table. A whistle blows, and in a flurry of musical chairs, each table is vacated momentarily before being occupied by a new group. The shuffling stops; the chatter resumes.

                  This is not a boardroom in a glassy downtown high-rise. It’s Centre Stage, a little nook of Utah Valley University’s Sorensen Student Center near the food court, a spot typically reserved for small-to medium-sized campus gatherings. On this morning, however, Centre Stage is a think tank, a breeding ground for the ideas that will form a key economic and business development strategy in Utah’s fastest-growing region. Convened at the request of UVU President Matthew Holland, this collection of industry titans is creating the University’s Business Engagement Strategy (BES).

                  That was in late 2009, mere months after Holland officially took office as UVU’s sixth president. In January 2010, the group, which included more than 60 people when you include the broader strategy review committee, finalized its recommendations.

“It was a pretty organic process, in terms of how the common themes arose,” says Craig Bott, president of Grow Utah Ventures and the group’s facilitator. “The driving forces were the vision and experience of the group, which was very well selected.”

Comprised of seven initiatives, the plan represents UVU’s strategic role in economic and business development going forward. It includes a broad swath of new endeavors for UVU, ranging from the creation of a technology commercialization office to an institutional focus on China as an emerging economic, cultural and political world power.

                  “The Business Engagement Strategy reflects the way that UVU can best align its resources and efforts to spur economic and business success in Utah,” Holland says. “The focused, dedicated and thoughtful work of the committee really steered this process. Because of their commitment to Utah’s prosperity, both now and in the future, I believe we have a strategy that connects higher education with the needs of industry in a very relevant and meaningful way. This is a perfect example of how we can bridge the needs of the community, region and state in the spirit of engagement.”

                  Utah’s reputation as a good place to do business has grown markedly over the past decade, and the BES is designed to position Utah, and specifically Utah County, for even greater economic success. The strategy also represents a confluence of ideas and efforts that came together with uncanny timing. Ultimately, the BES represents a deliberate focus on positioning the region for bigger and better things in the years to come.


At the confluence

                  While Holland convened the committee in 2009, the BES represents a collection of efforts that span industry, government and two separate UVU administrations — and impeccable timing for all those efforts in coming together. The roots go back to 2004, when Jon Huntsman was elected governor of Utah. Huntsman very quickly identified economic development as one of his top priorities, going so far as to roll the state economic development agency under the Governor’s Office. After Huntsman left Utah to accept an ambassadorship to China, the economic drum continued to beat under a new administration. Current Gov. Gary Herbert, who served as lieutenant governor to Huntsman before moving into the state’s top executive chair in 2009, has repeatedly articulated not only the importance of economic development for Utah’s future, but the central role education plays in that process. That political soil was fertile ground to give rise to the BES.

                  As an extension of the state’s economic push, the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED), in collaboration with the Utah Department of Workforce Services and state higher education system, started a program in the middle of the last decade geared to rev the development of key industries. As part of this Cluster Acceleration Program (CAP), UVU was identified as a possible host site for an effort to accelerate the state’s growing digital media industry. As a precursor to initiating this program, former UVU President William Sederburg began investigating how the institution could play a more integral role in the state’s strategic priorities.

                  As part of this process, Sederburg led a UVU delegation to Northern Kentucky University during the 2006-2007 academic year. NKU was similar to UVU in many ways — a higher education institution called to regional stewardship in a growing, dynamic part of the country — so it was a good test case. The NKU example suggested that UVU could improve its effectiveness as a regional steward by engaging with its partners in the business, civic and social arenas to find solutions to common problems. Convening a group of business leaders to talk about economic development fit nicely under that umbrella.

                  “For a long time, UVU has been seen as a neutral place to develop economic policy for the region,” says Val Peterson, UVU’s vice president for administration. “We wanted to move into cluster acceleration, and the state had an interest in us doing so, but our counterparts at NKU had been successful by taking on big initiatives after doing some serious homework. So the decision to bring together business leaders to talk through what’s important for Utah seemed to be the next logical step.”

                  In the near-term, the NKU case bolstered the rationale for what was then Utah Valley State College making the jump to university status. In the run-up to 2008, that became the institution’s focus. The official move came in July 2008, roughly simultaneous to Sederburg’s selection as the state’s commissioner of higher education. When Holland took over for Sederburg in June 2009, one of his first big projects was to grease the wheels of UVU’s economic development machine.

                  “To his credit, Matt Holland understood the need to bring in the right people for this project and then, like all business-savvy people do, he listened,” says Greg Butterfield, founder of SageCreek Partners and, along with Sorenson Capitol founder Fraser Bullock, co-chair of the BES group.  “We started with a clean slate — no biases — and worked at this thing from the 60,000-foot level.”

                  With UVU sitting at the confluence of these many economic development efforts, the young institution was also beginning to realize a newfound influence as a university. When Holland unveiled the BES to a group of business leaders at UVU in the fall of 2010, he noted that UVU was already educating more Utahns than any other university, that more than four out of every five of its graduates remain in the state, and returned each state dollar invested more than six-fold.

With that footprint as a baseline, UVU was ready to begin implementing the committee’s seven recommended areas of emphasis: technology commercialization, entrepreneurial initiatives, educational rigor, continuing dialogue between higher ed and industry, cluster acceleration, early identification of career pathways, and emphasis on the emergence of China. As the main priority, the group suggested focusing UVU’s efforts on revving small business. 

Facilitating entrepreneurship

                  Small business is the thread in Utah’s economic fabric. According to the Small Business Administration, Utah can thank the state’s 57,000 small employers for providing 97 percent of the state’s employment, including about half of the state’s private-sector employment. So while the state has been more active in attracting large firms to Utah in recent years, the importance of the Utah entrepreneur can’t be ignored.

                  The committee recognized this when it prioritized its recommendations for the BES. Right at the top, the group listed initiatives for spurring entrepreneurship and creating a clearinghouse for technology commercialization — two interrelated functions that have the potential to build business from the ground up.

                  “The leaders in the group were saying, ‘If we do anything at all, it should be this,’” Bott says. “These dynamics were discussed at length. We know that Utah’s small businesses are so important, and the intellectual property that’s developed in Utah County is an underutilized asset.”

                  In truth, UVU’s curriculum and programs have reflected an emphasis on entrepreneurship for some time. In the classroom, students in Peter Robinson’s entrepreneurship class have five weeks to parlay $1 in startup capital into a legal, ethical and commercially viable business, and their grade for the assignment is partly based on how much money they make. Some of his students have made more than $3,000 in that short time by selling concert T-shirts, installing siding or doing videography.

                  Outside the classroom, UVU has assisted countless budding entrepreneurs through the institution’s Small Business Development Center. Headed by Ken Fakler, the SBDC is a one-stop shop for would-be entrepreneurs who want a little help with the finer points of starting up a business, such as finding funding and setting up a legal structure. In 2010, the SBDC served 652 clients, resulting in 72 business starts, the creation of 221 jobs in Utah, $7.6 million in capital formation, and an increase in sales of nearly $6 million.

                  “That’s our mission: to help start businesses, and to help entrepreneurs grow their businesses from one level to the next,” Fakler says. “We are the liaison between the small business community and UVU.”

                  The SBDC serves many of the purposes outlined in the BES recommendations, including providing a spot for business incubation. In the fall, the SBDC will move to a new facility west of the main UVU campus that will house a dozen 250-square-foot incubator spaces for budding firms that need a semi-temporary space from which to do business.

                  Utah’s entrepreneurial culture leads to lots of small businesses, but sometimes good ideas don’t get shaped up to the point of being commercially viable. Enter UVU’s new Technology Commercialization Office. Under the direction of former UVU entrepreneur-in-residence Kent Millington, the office was formed as a direct result of the BES recommendations and will help turn the technology developed at the valley’s universities (UVU and BYU), as well as intellectual property created by the proverbial “guy in the garage,” into legitimate, money-making ventures.

                  “The TCO is a really critical bridge between the technologies, processes and ideas that percolate to the top, and the business structure that allows them to thrive in the marketplace,” says Millington. “There really is a terrific opportunity for UVU to take a leadership role in this area, which will be so key to this region’s economic success.  We will work with faculty and students as a primary source of technologies, but will also work with non-students to move their technical ideas forward.”


Open channels

The BES was not a flash in the pan. The group acknowledged that today’s business and economic cycles change more rapidly than ever before. To stay ahead of the curve, the group recommended a establishing a formal and ongoing business advisory group.

“In Utah, we have many disparate areas of leadership, but we lack a broader interface,” Bott says. “UVU will play an ongoing role in convening key leaders to have these discussions.”

This standing committee’s role is especially important, Bott says, because one of the group’s realizations was that the region could benefit from more regular collaboration. The goal going forward: stay ahead of economic trends by talking more often.

“There is an extraordinary energy in this region. The amount of economic potential is tremendous, and UVU will play an integral role in realizing that potential,” Holland says. “My vision is to see Utah become a national, and potentially international, model for robust private-public partnerships in economic development. This work of the business engagement group provides critical focus that can help get us there.”


Leaning on the SBDC

In 2006, Laura Felt decided to take the plunge. She had wanted to start a business for some time, but she had never gotten beyond toeing the edge of the water. Finally, she was ready.

Felt’s concept was to fill what she saw as a missing niche by selling moderately-priced women’s shoes at a brick-and-mortar retail outlet. Problem was, she knew nothing about the details of business ownership and management.

“I didn’t have a degree in business or anything. I didn’t know the business lingo,” says Felt, owner of Sole Envy.

Felt turned to the SBDC, which gave her advice on getting funding and negotiating the terms of the lease on her retail space. If not for the help she received, Felt says she probably wouldn’t have gotten the funding to start her business, and the economics of her initial lease arrangement would have forced her to close during some lean months amid the crush of the recession.

“I’m only 23 now, and I didn’t want one business failure to define my life,” she says. “I’m glad for the help of the SBDC and that they were very realistic with me.”

Rounding out the lineup

                  The BES committee’s recommendations for small business development took center stage, but the group also had other specific recommendations for how UVU could facilitate business and economic development. These initiatives reflect the group’s sense that UVU’s efforts should be focused locally while rolling in the context of the global economy.


Academic rigor: There seems to be nearly universal recognition that higher education will be key in Utah’s continued economic competitiveness, as evidenced by the Prosperity 2020 goal of increasing the number of college-prepared adults from 39 percent to 66 percent during this decade. But far too many students enter college underprepared, which takes a toll on the students, the educational system and the state.

                  To promote seamless transitions and more college-educated Utahns, UVU is leading the state in its K-16 collaboration efforts. UVU is developing a variety of summer bridge programs for incoming students and meets with the seven superintendents from the region every two months to discuss two goals: First, reducing the number of students who need remedial math. Second, increasing communication with K-12 counselors for clarity of expectations and seamless transitions to UVU.


Cluster acceleration: With a prime location in one of the nation’s fastest-growing and most dynamic regions, UVU is uniquely positioned to connect its resources and expertise with the public and private sectors for cluster acceleration. UVU was recently selected as the host site for a digital media Cluster Acceleration Program (CAP) funded by a grant from the Utah System of Higher Education, Governor’s Office of Economic Development, and Department of Workforce Services.

                  While not a CAP program, the state’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership is also administered by UVU. In 2009 alone, the MEP saved or created nearly 2,300 jobs for $659 in industry output and nearly $15 million in new taxes added to state coffers.


Career pathways: Even as a university, UVU provides career training across the curriculum, which is absolutely necessary to fill the needs of local employers, Bott says: “It’s a matching game — let’s match up the needs of industry with what’s taught in education.”

                            A point of emphasis at UVU is to help students identify their courses of study early in the university experience. To aid students in identifying career pathways, UVU recently adopted two initiatives: the Electronic Student Education Occupation Plan (eSEOP), and Wolverine Tracks. Launched during spring 2010, the eSEOP connects UVU advisers with the career planning efforts of high school students. Once the student is at UVU, Wolverine Tracks helps students set up and monitor their personal degree completion plans. By August 2011, about 60 percent of first-year students will have a customized graduation plan on Wolverine Tracks.


Focus on China: China’s relevance in terms of the world economy cannot be ignored. China is not only the world’s most populous country, with more than 1.3 billion people, but in 2010 it also became the globe’s second-largest economy behind the U.S. with a gross domestic product of nearly $10 trillion.

                            UVU began taking special notice of China in 2010 through academic programs and other initiatives. In 2011, UVU was one of 10 institutions nationally to be selected for a special China initiative sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education's Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education. UVU was tapped to participate in the International Academic Partnerships Program, a major initiative of the Institute of International Education designed to increase the number of international partnerships between higher education institutions in the U.S. and those in China.


Get Involved

                            You can help UVU grow the economic and business prospects for the state and region. To learn more about opportunities to participate in UVU’s business engagement strategy, please contact Val Hale, vice president for university relations, at (801) 863-8335 or