A New Era of Innovation

12.01.2014
Workforce

UConn’s Next Generation Connecticut

By Bill DeRosa

(L-R): Jim Torgerson, Mun Choi, Cato Laurencin, Deborah Dorcemus, Rachel Winsor, Stephen Escedy.

On Oct. 30, more than 500 business and government leaders at CBIA’s 199th Annual Meeting and Reception learned how UConn’s Next Generation Connecticut (NGC) initiative is reigniting the state’s spirit of innovation and driving economic growth.

On hand at the Marriott Hartford Downtown to discuss NGC were five panelists from UConn: Mun Choi, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs; Cato Laurencin, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering; Deborah Dorcemus, biomedical engineering Ph.D. candidate; Rachel Winsor, biomedical engineering senior; and Stephen Escedy, materials sciences and engineering senior. Moderating was Jim Torgerson, president and CEO of UIL Holdings Corp. and chair of CBIA’s board of directors.

Proposed by Gov. Malloy and approved with bipartisan support by the state legislature in June 2013, NGC provides funding for increasing UConn’s enrollment, expanding faculty in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), and building new research and teaching facilities.

A Vision Amplified

Although past state investments enabled UConn to “hire the faculty, build the buildings, and develop the curriculum that would make our students and faculty nationally competitive,” said Choi, “with Next Generation Connecticut, that vision was amplified, with the clear goal of working with industry.”

One way the university is achieving that goal is by reaching out to Connecticut companies to find out what they need, and then providing it.

“We found that in many cases, they needed access to core equipment, like an additive manufacturing machine or an electron microscope that, individually, they could not afford to have in their facilities,” said Choi.

As a result, Choi noted, UConn recently entered into a $25 million partnership with scientific instrument maker FEI that will create the world’s foremost microscopy facility at the UConn Tech Park planned for the Storrs campus.

The desire to forge a working relationship with industry is closely aligned with NGC’s objective of making the university an economic driver in Connecticut.

Laurencin explained that the UConn Health Center is no longer just a place that provides great clinical care, research, and education, but is also helping to improve Connecticut’s economic environment by fostering a culture of innovation.

“The Health Center is doubling the amount of business incubator space for the entire university,” he said.

Critical to the university’s becoming a bigger economic player in Connecticut, he adds, is its ability to obtain and leverage federal funding.

“For”_Connecticut, every million dollars of NIH [National Institutes of Health] funding equals 10 jobs. And every million dollars in NIH funding equals one invention disclosure. Every three or four invention disclosures equal a patent. And every three or four patents equal a company.”

One such company among several UConn-grown startups on display at the Annual Meeting is DuraBiotech, which specializes in novel heart valve designs and was created through the university’s Storrs-based Technology Incubation Program.

Building a 21st Century Workforce

To provide a strong pipeline of workers with advanced technological skills, NGC emphasizes hands-on learning, applying classroom experience to the real world of science and engineering.

“We have students that work on, let’s say, advanced manufacturing,” says Choi. “Instead of learning just by watching a video or just having a base layer of understanding of the equipment, we bring them into our Pratt & Whitney Center for Additive Manufacturing. If they want to work on genomics, they work with colleagues at The Jackson Laboratory.”

In addition, says Choi, NGC is working with economic development entities, such as Connecticut Innovations, to create technology bridge programs that provide support to companies that hire UConn students as interns.

UConn senior Stephen Ecsedy, who is part of a German team designing a sample mount for a custom-built electron microscope, believes that getting young people interested in STEM fields is critical.

As a member of the engineering ambassadors program at UConn, Ecsedy works with middle and high school students to spur their interest in engineering.

“We give them an engineering design challenge,” he says. “It really sparks something. Hopefully we can make a lasting impact.”

Bill DeRosa is editor of CBIA News. Contact him at bill.derosa@cbia.com.

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