By Scott Meacham
Copyright © 2016, The Oklahoma Publishing Co.
Author, visionary, and predictor H.G. Wells has been called the father of science fiction. In his most famous book, “The Time Machine,” Wells propels his main character forward by more than 800,000 years to imagined worlds.
When Wells was drafting this best-seller (long before there were any best-seller lists), the real world was at the threshold of the 20th century. During those 100 years, the pace of invention and discovery was literally going to blast off the earth to reach the moon and beyond.
This is the 30th Anniversary of the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology (OCAST). The Oklahoma legislators and business leaders in the late eighties who conceived of OCAST didn’t have a time machine to fast forward and see how innovation could diversify and strengthen the economy of this state, but, like H.G. Wells, they had imagination and a vision.
To appreciate that vision, think for a minute about what Oklahoma was like back then. Our economy was suffering from the devastating effects of the oil bust. At the time, one in every 11 jobs in Oklahoma was tied to oil and gas. The drain of talent to other states was substantial. Lots of our brightest didn’t see any opportunities in the state. Even if they went to school here, they relocated to Texas, California or Colorado or other states where there were the kinds of jobs that fit their education attainments and skills.
Into this environment, in the decade of shoulder pads and the Eurythmics, OCAST was born with the ambitious mission to grow and diversify the Oklahoma economy through technology.
OCAST started by awarding grants in health research and capitalizing on the talent and international reputations of the state’s biomedical institutions, including the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation and the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. OCAST helped several companies get off the ground, but because there was no early stage funding here, getting off the ground often meant looking to the east or west coast for startup capital.
A groundbreaking public/private partnership between OCAST and i2E led first to pre-seed and proof of concept funding and then in 2007 to the Oklahoma Seed Capital Fund, which has invested $13 million in 28 Oklahoma startups.
OCAST is in the top 10 state agencies in terms of impact and results, and in the bottom 10 when it comes to number of staff — 95 percent of its funding goes to programs, a good measure of efficiency. It is a high performing agency that creates great value for our state — its cumulative return on investment is 21 to 1 and OCAST activities have resulted in more than 13,000 jobs in just the last five years.
OCAST has the tools and the know-how to form even more meaningful collaborations and partnerships to further accelerate economic diversity. Witness the leverage that’s come with the agency’s public/private partnerships with i2E, the Oklahoma Manufacturing Alliance, and the New Product Development Center.
As the Legislature begins its budgeting process, we don’t need time travel to prove tomorrow’s value of increased funding and investment in OCAST — a good story with proven results and vital to Oklahoma’s science and technology future.
Scott Meacham is president and CEO of i2E Inc., a nonprofit corporation that mentors many of the state’s technology-based startup companies. i2E receives state support from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology and is an integral part of Oklahoma’s Innovation Model. Email Meacham at i2E_Comments@i2E.org.