By Scott Meacham
Copyright © 2018, The Oklahoma Publishing Co.
It seems like the conversation everywhere today is about how much or how little government should or should not do.
No matter which side you take in that particular debate, I believe that it makes economic and business sense for government — both federal and state — to invest in scientific research. Funding research is one of the most impactful long-term economic investments that federal and state governments can make.
Research is the cornerstone of every innovation economy and a critical aspect of a state’s pipeline of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) talent. States that don’t have research lose their university graduates to other states. States that have grants and awards to fund research attract and anchor scientists — from recent graduates working on Ph.D.s to seasoned researchers from other states.
With discovery and invention and intellectual property ready for commercialization, new companies develop, jobs are created, and local communities thrive. In states like Oklahoma that historically have been overly dependent on natural resources, investment in research has been the spark and the fuel of economic diversification.
Our state vision for research dates all the way back to the 1980s when forward-thinking Oklahomans who had grown weary of Oklahoma’s boom-and-bust energy over-dependence recognized the impact and potential for economic diversification of research when they created OCAST (Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology).
The $300 million that OCAST invested in 2,774 projects has returned $22 for every dollar invested. The return is important, but here’s the real power in the OCAST results.
OCAST and its strategic partners (i2E and the Oklahoma Manufacturing Alliance) created the Oklahoma Innovation Model, which has led to more than 20,000 jobs in just the last five years — 20,000 jobs that pay an average wage of nearly $70,000, more than 50 percent higher than the statewide average wage.
Results like these don’t happen automatically. The OCAST process is rigorous. Applicants from research universities, foundations or private entities apply to OCAST solicitations. Projects are vetted through outside peer review, i.e., no Oklahoma-based scientists or subject matter experts are involved. Projects are judged based on scientific merit and the potential for commercialization.
“OCAST grants can be used as the match on grants from the National Institutes of Health or to leverage further private sector investment,” said Michael Carolina, OCAST executive director. “As the resulting technology moves into commercialization, we hand the resulting opportunity off to i2E for angel and venture capital investment.”
Those 20,000 new jobs are proof positive that OCAST’s Oklahoma Innovation Model, a public-private partnership, works. The Kauffman Foundation ranks Oklahoma second in startup activity and first in the rate of new entrepreneurs.
“We are in exciting times. There is a competitiveness in Oklahoma, in the way that everything adds up.” Carolina said. “We have all the ingredients — research universities, natural resources, a strong industrial base, and innovation activity all over the state.”
We can keep Oklahoma’s momentum going by doing more of what we know — and have proved — works.
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. Contact Meacham at i2E_Comments@i2E.org.