UD research an important engine for 21st-century economy

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Charles Riordan

When Wayne Westerman was a graduate student at the University of Delaware, he and his adviser, Professor John Elias, invented a technology that would change the world.

With their touch-screen technology, you didn’t need depressible keypads on your cellphone. Now, you could “touch-type” and scroll down a screen with the swipe of a finger.

That innovation formed the basis of their company, FingerWorks, which Apple acquired in 2005. Today, hundreds of millions of people around the globe use this Delaware invention in their smartphones and tablets.

A recent Delaware Voice article by Michael Fleming, “Can Wilmington ever catch the Uber economy?” points out the catalytic role that universities increasingly are playing in incubating the ideas that will drive future economic development and urges UD to strengthen its startup culture.

I agree. Scholars, including Westerman and Elias and UD’s Nobel Laureate, Professor Richard Heck, whose curiosity drove discovery of chemistry used in the human genome project, pharmaceuticals and the electronics industry, demonstrate the global impact that academic research can have on society. I believe much more opportunity lies ahead.

As a major research university with $200 million per year in externally sponsored expenditures, UD is growing ever-stronger as an engine for Delaware’s 21st-century economy. We offer expanded entrepreneurship programs, state-of-the-art workspaces, where students and faculty can collaborate on new concepts, and initiatives that affirm the excellence and creativity of faculty with big ideas for the future.

Through our Horn Program in Entrepreneurship, students, alumni, faculty and staff can participate in Hen Hatch, the university’s premier startup funding competition. They receive feedback on their ideas while competing for about $50,000 in startup cash and prizes.

Future entrepreneurs come together in our Venture Development Center to learn from business leaders such as Vess and Tanya Bakalov. In 2005, these UD alumni founded SevOne, an IT performance management company. It has been recognized as one of the fastest-growing private companies by Deloitte and has been named a Top 10 Company to Watch.

Last year, SevOne raised $150 million led by Bain Capital Investors and now has more than 300 employees – many of them UD alumni – and offices in Philadelphia, Boston and northern Delaware.

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In our Design Studio, with its prototyping lab equipped with 3-D printers, you might find students involved in the Spin-In program, launched by UD’s Office of Economic Innovation and Partnerships. Student teams, mentored by faculty, work side-by-side with entrepreneurs developing early-stage technology. They also craft a business plan and marketing strategy, with the goal to spin the technology out of the university and into commercial products.

UD’s Health Sciences Complex at the Science, Technology and Advanced Research Campus, is a prime example of UD’s strategic positioning of research adjacent to business to foster entrepreneurial activity. The university side of the building emphasizes education, research and clinical programs, including clinics open to the public and operated by our physical therapy doctorate program, ranked second in the U.S., and our Nurse Managed Health Center.

The building also has a private sector side for businesses that complement UD’s mission – perhaps an imaging lab or a pharmacy, for example. This configuration is designed to facilitate collaborative research and provide valuable internship opportunities for our students, while also offering a convenient “one-stop shopping” experience for patients.

Also on STAR Campus is UD’s joint venture with NRG Energy Inc. to evaluate the potential of grid-integrated electric vehicles. With electric vehicles plugged in, UD’s patented technology enables the batteries to send electricity to the grid as needed, enhancing stability of the electricity supply while providing a financial incentive to technology adopters. Partners in this unique operation include regional grid operator PJM and automakers BMW and Honda.

UD embarks this year on a strategic planning initiative to ensure the university continues to prepare students for the 21st-century economy. Titled “Delaware Will Shine,” the effort challenges the UD community – faculty, staff, students, alumni and community partners – to consider and affirm those areas where UD is positioned to have its greatest impact in addressing the world’s most pressing problems through our research, scholarship, teaching and community service. This entrepreneurial spirit will ensure our innovations continue to improve society and drive the local economy.

Charlie Riordan is vice provost for research at the University of Delaware.