Commentary: Building innovation hubs requires diverse research funding

UT students, faculty and researchers contribute to Austin’s growth in advanced industries.

Posted August 16th, 2016

America’s most successful innovation hubs tend to have one powerful attribute in common: They are located in regions with great research universities. 

Silicon Valley might have been founded by early pioneers of the semiconductor business, but the Valley was seeded by tech companies such as Hewlett-Packard, whose founders were Stanford University alumni. Since 1939, when David Packard and William Hewlett launched a little electronics company in their garage at the encouragement of their professor, Silicon Valley has become a global technology center synonymous with innovation. There is no doubt that the region owes its phenomenal success to the support, resources, research and talent from Stanford, as well as from nearby University of California, San Francisco and University of California, Berkeley. 

Boston is another iconic innovation destination, largely due to the research prowess of MIT and Harvard as well as many other great universities. More than 3,000 miles from Silicon Valley, Boston has created its own impressive startup ecosystem. Just this year the U.S. Chamber of Commerce deemed it the city best positioned to lead the digital economy.


University of Texas SystemJulie Goonewardene is an associate vice chancellor for innovation and strategic investment for the University of Texas System.

Charting a similar course, Austin has grown from a quirky capital city to a national technology hub thanks in large part to the close relationships the region and its industries have forged with the University of Texas at Austin. Over the years, UT researchers, students and alumni have made numerous discoveries that led to patents. Those patents paved the way for the creation of many local technology and biotech companies.

Aeglea BioTherapuetics, for example, was founded three years ago by UT Austin professor George Georgiou and Austin venture capitalist turned CEO David Lowe. The company, which went public in 2015, is using technology developed by Georgiou at UT to create medicines to treat rare diseases and cancer.

The company received a boost to move its technology from the lab to the marketplace when it was awarded seed funding from the UT Horizon Fund, a venture capital fund created by the University of Texas System to provide startup capital for companies with ties to UT technologies. The fund is not only benefiting UT Austin. It is impacting Texas and the nation by helping innovators across UT’s 14 institutions, from Houston to El Paso and from Dallas to Brownsville. 

UT Austin’s students, faculty and researchers have contributed greatly to Austin’s explosive growth in advanced industries. Those contributions were important factors in landing Austin on the Brookings Institution list of Top 10 cities with thriving advanced industries. 

As with any innovation hub, academic research must continue to be robust in order to drive the economy. However, our universities are facing an innovation deficit, a situation where decreased federal funding is failing to meet the costs of conducting research. It’s a trend line that has continued to sink over the past several years.

Universities must seek a diverse set of solutions to address this problem. Without funding, universities will find it difficult to recruit talented faculty, purchase costly research equipment, and ultimately make new discoveries in science and technology; discoveries that improve or save lives in Texas, the nation and the world.

It is paramount that universities continually demonstrate to federal leaders the value of research and its impact on society. But it is also important to keep in mind that there are solutions to explore beyond government.

The private sector is constantly seeking opportunities to bolster research and development divisions by capitalizing on ideas from academia, hiring talent from universities, and partnering with faculty to fund or commercialize their research.

Forging partnerships between universities and industries and creating programs that further the interaction between scientists and companies are important strategies for funding new and ongoing research. Part of the UT System’s Office of Technology Commercialization’s mission is to foster those relationships, attracting private sector investment through new multi-institutional industry partnership models.

America has been the world’s innovation hub for decades—as places such as Austin, Boston and Silicon Valley demonstrate—but we are facing increased competition from other countries investing more into their own academic research programs, diversifying their sources of external research funding and partnering more and more with industry.

We must do the same and do it better. The innovative thinking that has led to groundbreaking discoveries at America’s universities can also be employed to find creative solutions for research funding challenges. There is no better way to invest in our nation’s future.

Julie Goonewardene is an associate vice chancellor for innovation and strategic investment for the University of Texas System.