UH’s Innovation Initiative is talking real money

—Managing Editor’s Notebook by Jim George published in the September 21, 2012 issue of Pacific Business News

“A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”

That famous quote, attributed to the late U.S. Sen. Everett McKinley Dirksen, may well be an urban legend. The Dirksen Congressional Center says there’s no record of the Republican senator from Illinois ever coining that phrase to express his disdain for federal spending.

But it’s a good one. And, despite the implied sarcasm, a billion dollars is still real money if it’s in the right place for the right reasons.

Peter Quigley knows this. As executive director of the University of Hawaii Innovation Initiative, he has his sights set on one billion dollars. That’s the amount of money he wants UH to attract in federal research grants within the next eight to 10 years.

UH already is about halfway to that goal. During a two-year period — fiscal years 2010 and 2011 — 86 UH researchers, known as principal investigators, each received awards of at least $1 million for an approximate total of $456 million. Eleven researchers accounted for about 30 percent of that total.

In a 2009 report, UH ranked 51st out of 689 public and private universities in research expenditures. That sounds good, but Quigley thinks UH can do much better.

His goal is to build a research culture at UH and a research industry in Hawaii. To do that he needs to attract world-class principal investigators who can generate $5 million to $20 million apiece in federal grants by building teams of researchers that can execute those grants. He believes that, despite possible cuts in federal spending, the money is out there, as are the researchers. Some are already here and Quigley hints that others may be on the way next year.

Quigley talks about “front-loading the talent” — attracting the researchers to Hawaii before all the infrastructure is in place. Facilities such as the new Cancer Research Center and the Mauna Kea telescopes certainly help, but researchers will follow a winner, especially if Hawaii’s lifestyle is part of the mix.

Quigley’s business model is San Diego Connect, a program that began at the University of California San Diego in the mid-1980s that it says has assisted in the formation and development of more than 3,000 companies. The key to its success, according to its website, has been the “unique culture of collaboration between industry, capital sources, professional service providers and research organizations.”

Research means jobs. One estimate suggests that a $20 million federal research grant can create 400 well-paying jobs. UH President M.R.C. Greenwood has asked the UH Economic Research Organization to develop a more precise formula, and UHERO Executive Director Carl Bonham says he’ll have one by year’s end.

Quigley is not alone in his quest for a billion dollars. Greenwood has a rich history of scientific research and funding and has been pushing the concept of UH as a predominant research university since she arrived three years ago. She, Quigley and others have been on the speaking circuit, showing how the San Diego model could lead to a Hawaii Connect. The Hawaii Business Roundtable, a group of top executives at Hawaii’s largest businesses, was a recent audience.

The Hawaii Innovation Initiative is worth noting as a state Senate committee prepares to hold hearings next week on what has been dubbed the “Wonder Blunder” — an ill-fated attempt by the UH Athletics Department to hold a Stevie Wonder fundraising concert and the disappearance of $200,000 that even the FBI can’t find. Whether the hearings are political posturing or a sincere attempt at uncovering some answers is not the point.

The point is that we’re spending a lot of time and energy focusing on a missing $200,000. That time and energy would be better invested in finding ways to build a billion-dollar research and innovation industry for Hawaii.

Then we would be talking real money.

—Reprinted with permission from Pacific Business News

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *