By The Oklahoman Editorial Board
Copyright © 2016, The Oklahoma Publishing Co.
OKLAHOMA legislators have another tough session ahead, one in which they are expected to have perhaps $600 million less to appropriate than they did in 2016 — when there was $1.3 billion less than the year before. It will be challenging work, to put it mildly.
Yet as they go about their jobs, lawmakers would do well to note agencies that are performing at a high level, and do all they can to hold them harmless if possible. One such agency is the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology, or OCAST.
The Legislature created OCAST nearly 30 years ago, with a goal of creating more innovation in Oklahoma, producing jobs and benefiting the state economically. It has performed exactly as hoped.
According to its 2015 annual report, OCAST has produced about 2,100 high-paying jobs. Its return on the state’s investment in 2015 was a remarkable 33-to-1.
One of OCAST’s strategic partners is i2E, a private, nonprofit corporation that mentors many of the state’s technology-based startup companies. Funded by OCAST, i2E has seen its work bear fruit in two high-profile transactions in the past few weeks.
The first was last month when Oklahoma City-based Selexys Pharmaceuticals was bought by Novartis for $665 million. It was i2E, OCAST and the Presbyterian Health Foundation that provided Selexys with its first institutional capital.
Earlier this month came the news that Crawford & Co., a giant insurance claims management firm, would acquire an 85 percent membership interest in Oklahoma-based IT firm WeGoLook for $36.125 million. At the outset, i2E invested in and advised WeGoLook, and helped it find other investors.
Scott Meacham, i2E’s president and CEO, points out that these deals are providing jobs in Oklahoma and financial returns for local investors, including i2E. They also “put Oklahoma solidly on the map as a state with exciting, investable startup deals,” he said in his regular column in The Oklahoman’s Business section. (Just last week, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said high-tech innovation is important to the economy in all five of Oklahoma’s congressional districts.)
Finally, Meacham said, these two big deals validate i2E’s model for helping startups get off the ground and grow, as part of its partnership with OCAST.
The Legislature appropriated OCAST $15.9 million for this fiscal year, which was a cut of roughly $1.1 million from the year before. As recently as 2014, OCAST’s budget was $17.8 million. As Meacham noted in an op-ed in this paper in June, OCAST’s budget has been cut more than 44 percent since fiscal year 2008.
Many state agencies have felt similar pain, no doubt. However, OCAST has regularly had to fight to keep its budget from shrinking even when the state’s finances were in much better shape.
When they get their red pencils out next session, state budget writers should recall these most recent success stories and OCAST’s long history of success. Oklahoma needs more, not less, of what OCAST and its partners are producing.