APLU recognizes U—and the PIVOT Center—for its innovation and economic impact

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.


The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities has recognized the U for its innovation, entrepreneurism and economic impact in Utah. Keith Marmer, the U’s chief innovation and economic engagement officer, explains this prestigious designation and the broadened role of our technology transfer operation, newly renamed the PIVOT Center. Recorded on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. Thanks to Brooke Adams, Emily Black and Dave White for technical assistance. Original music by Taylor Hartley.

President Ruth Watkins: Hello, I'm President Ruth Watkins, president of the University of Utah. As many of our listeners know, the U is highly regarded for innovation and entrepreneurship, and today you get to learn more about that. In particular, you're going to learn about the center that helps our faculty, and our students take their great ideas and their discoveries into the marketplace. My guest is Keith Marmer. Keith is chief innovation and economic engagement officer, and he oversees this work at the University of Utah, and in particular, a very newly established PIVOT Center. So, we're going to tell you about the work of the PIVOT Center, and before we do that, though, we have some really fabulous news to share with you. The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities has awarded the U the Innovation and Economic Prosperity Designation. Of course, we're thrilled about this. We know that universities have an incredible role in economic development and contributions to that vibrancy and health of our state and our region. So, this is a big deal, Keith, welcome to U Rising and congratulations on this designation!

Keith Marmer: Thank you, President Watkins, and likewise, congratulations.

President Watkins: Keith, I would imagine that being designated as an Innovation and Economic Prosperity University is kind of special. Do you have any idea how many universities around the country have earned that designation?

Keith Marmer: Yes. So, the designation has been in existence since 2012 and fewer than 70 universities have actually achieved that designation.

President Watkins: So that does help us understand this is a big deal for the University of Utah. Well done!

Keith Marmer: Thank you.

President Watkins: Keith, I think our listeners will want to know a little bit about you, your background and how you came to the U and a little bit about your personal story.

Keith Marmer: Sure. So, I originally went to school for physical therapy. I was a practicing physical therapist, worked in the field in sports medicine. About a year after graduate school, decided that I had this entrepreneurial calling and started my first company and spent a total of about 16 years as an entrepreneur across the span of two companies. And it was just a fabulous experience, all consuming, but learned so much. And I learned that I was passionate about entrepreneurship and after two companies, decided I'd fulfilled that mission in my life and wanted to see if I could explore some other ways to be entrepreneurial.

And as I was consulting to other companies, I was actually hired as a professor of entrepreneurship at a university I had graduated from and learned quickly that the classroom was fun, but it took me too far away from the practice. And so, I was prepared to go back and start another company, when the university introduced me to this thing called ‘technology transfer,’ which I'd never heard of before. And so, I started to look at it as really a new opportunity to engage with other entrepreneurs and a way to be supportive and helpful.

And it's where I've spent most of the last 15 years. I've been involved in venture capital for a couple of years, so I did take a bit of a detour, but found that I just truly love the academic setting and working with innovative folks and the ability to support them. And it's been about four years since I joined the U. It was a great opportunity given the reputation of the university and all the innovative work that's been going on here and was just really honored when the chance came to join.

President Watkins: Well, for us it's been great, and one of the reasons it's been great is because you have walked the walk as an entrepreneur, and I think there is no substitute for having lived it as you help others navigate the process. So, you have provided leadership to the unit traditionally here called the Center for Technology and Venture Commercialization, we often would say TVC, and now that has been expanded in terms of role with a new name, PIVOT. Tell us about why the new name? And what PIVOT is doing that's similar to and different from TVC.

Keith Marmer: So the new name really stemmed from the results of a year-long, self-study process, which was actually part of us achieving the IEP designation, and during that self-study process, we spoke to many faculty members across campus, others across campus, as well as stakeholders throughout the community, including entrepreneurs, investors, folks in government agencies that work in economic development, and one of the consistent themes that we heard was they would like to see the university centralize, formalize and scale our efforts—not only in technology commercialization, but in corporate engagement and economic development. And I think there's a realization that came home for us in that those three things—tech commercialization, corporate engagement and economic development—are so intertwined.

And so simply having three offices that just talk to each other on occasion wasn't really good enough for our expectations and our vision. And so, we took the extra effort to think through how to create one singular operation, leveraging TVC, as you said, from our base, and then growing out to include economic development and corporate engagement. And so. the name PIVOT Center actually stands for something—PIVOT, being an acronym for Partners for Innovation, Ventures, Outreach, and Technology, and we feel it speaks very much to who we are and what we do.

President Watkins: I think it's just a perfect name in so many ways, and one of the things that I hear a lot as I engage with industry and corporate leaders is, they know the university has expertise, talent and knowledge that could help them. What they have difficulty with is finding where to connect with the university—who do I call? Where do I go for help? Where do I go as a corporate leader, industry partner, when I want to either find expertise or get assistance or even recruit talent? And I think if I understand your message correctly, the PIVOT Center is going to be that first stop, one-stop shop as a great place to go to begin the journey.

Keith Marmer: Absolutely. I think in an environment like a university, it's hard to say there's a single front door to anything because there's almost 40,000 faculty and staff, we've got almost that many students on top of that, and an entire health system. So, we're not saying we're the only place to come, but we are saying we are the place to come to help you get started, and if we're not the right place, we'll make sure you get there.

President Watkins: That's great. So, help our listeners understand a little bit more closely, the kind of work you do. Your mission then is really technology, commercialization, corporate engagement, economic development. Maybe you could talk about how you deliver on that mission and give us an example or two of the work you do every day that helps those things happen.

Keith Marmer: Sure. So, to start, we are doing research across campus in so many areas and some of that research leads to new ideas that are inventive. And so, we see about 200 new inventions every year in our office. It's pretty sizable number and it continues to grow as our research mission grows. And those inventions have to be evaluated, and we look for where we might be able to secure intellectual property rights, typically in the form of a patent, and then those patents can form the basis of a relationship either with an existing company or the creation of a new company. And so, we have teams dedicated to every aspect of those pieces.

But it's more than just the teams, it's really then recognizing that it's not simply enough to sign an agreement and consider our job done. We really have to stay engaged for the long-term which means establishing relationships with our faculty, first and foremost, and then also with other stakeholders, as I mentioned earlier, investors, entrepreneurs, and others that are involved in this ecosystem. And so, I like to think of what we do, not as transactional, but catalyzing relationships. To me, that's really the essence of what we do, is putting the pieces together. And so, putting those pieces together is something that happens over an extended period of time. And it also lends well to these two new functions that we're talking about, corporate engagement and economic development, they go hand-in-hand.

With corporate engagement, we're looking at corporate partners who may want to take on one of our inventions and bring it out to the marketplace as a product. From an economic development standpoint, it's not just the companies we form and the jobs we create, but the environments in which we create them, and so we're involved in facilitating things like innovation districts, we're involved in establishing relationships that lead to new capabilities. And so, a couple of examples. We recently announced the launch of something called Altitude Lab. Altitude Lab is a public-private partnership with a company in Utah called Recursion Pharmaceuticals, who incidentally is a spin-out of our university, and it now forms the largest wet lab incubator in the state of Utah. And so, we can now give a home to fledgling companies, particularly in the life science space.

President Watkins:

So, Keith, for listeners that might not know, tell us what a wet lab is.

Keith Marmer: So, a wet lab is some place that has lots of equipment, and since there's no video here, I'll ask people to imagine that in a wet lab, we're managing things that require a lot of safety. So, they could include not only microscopes for handling biologic material to evaluate them, but safety equipment where these materials can be handled in a manner that don't expose individuals doing the research to risk. So highly complex laboratory equipment as opposed to, for example, a dry lab, which would simply be a bench that has some equipment that you can operate in a safe environment without specialized handling equipment.

One of the things I'm also excited about is there's a mission within Altitude Lab, not just to facilitate the growth of companies, but to support historically underrepresented groups in leadership of life science companies and so we're excited to be able to also play that role in bringing a new generation of entrepreneurs into the field.

Perhaps one other example worth noting is we also recently launched Summit Venture Studios. And what that is, is a hybrid of an accelerator of new ideas and a venture fund that looks at all the software that gets created across a university, and a lot of folks probably don't realize how much software is developed in a university environment—oftentimes just for our own needs but has so many opportunities to have commercial impact. And so, this studio has the resources to now help the folks on campus, and other campuses frankly, around the country that develop software to make them into commercial applications that can have an impact.

President Watkins: Those are great examples. And I think as I listen to you on these stories, I can see that there is a big funnel in commercialization work that, of course, it needs to be broad. We have a lot of people with a lot of ideas, they aren't all going to lead to a commercializable product, but those that do and succeed will take nurturing over time through the ups and the downs of this journey. So clearly you and the PIVOT Center are in it for the long haul, and I think that is a critical element of your success. I think that success now we are celebrating the recognition by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities of our designation in this area. This Innovation and Economic Prosperity recognition, that we now get to be an Innovation and Economic Prosperity University. So, I suspect there was a lot of work involved in that designation. Tell us about it.

Keith Marmer: So, it was a lot of work, but it was not by any stretch of the imagination just me that did that work. We actually put together a committee of 11 individuals across the university that have responsibility in areas for students, science, administrative responsibilities, that touch all these aspects. And the APLU looks at this designation as being representative of three core areas: talent, innovation and place. And how they interact in effect is a Venn diagram, if you will. And so, this committee looked at all of the resources across campus, all of the expertise that we have across campus, as well as where we have opportunities for growth.

And in order to go through this process for APLU, we really had to take a deep dive into each of these areas, examining where we've seen success, where we see we have opportunities for growth, and we actually were chartered as part of this process to put together a five-year plan for what we were going to do and commit to that plan in real terms and PIVOT Center is the ultimate commitment that we've made out of the gate, obviously. But we have as a result of this process now something of a roadmap that will help us over that period of time look at deliverables, goals that we want to achieve as well as how we're going to measure success and success is one of those things that will be measured, not just in a single way, similar to technology commercialization, not everything is going to result in a new business.

And so, when we think about success, we're looking at these metrics in terms of impact. And so, it may be how many of our graduates can we help put into job opportunities that will give them real, meaningful careers over the long haul? Or can we create new opportunities that we can support for upskilling, reskilling? We're also looking at not just how many businesses we can create, but how many of those businesses have strong management teams coupled with great science, coupled with really important intellectual property, that can have impact by bringing a new therapy to market, perhaps, or a new software tool that will really impact people's lives.

President Watkins: So, as you talk about those metrics of success, there's a convergence in one way or another on economic vibrancy and health, and lots of different ways of looking at that, I think, certainly the direct and indirect economic impacts but also I think the relevance to society, the society we serve. So big discoveries that really change and transform lives as well as the extent to which PIVOT, and TVC before it, are engaging investigators and discoverers and entrepreneurs who have been left out historically, and now have more of an opportunity to have a seat at the table and transform their own lives as well as the lives of their community.

So, it's an exciting time for us, and we are also very fortunate to be in an economically, very vibrant place. I know we have spent time looking at the role the university plays in the economic vibrancy of our region and of our state, we know that's pretty significant. What our listeners might not know is, what are some of those big discoveries that came from the University of Utah TVC, now PIVOT. What are some of the very best stories we have of technology commercialization, entrepreneurship, that have really led to gains for Utahns?

Keith Marmer: There are really a lot of great stories, but if I had to narrow it down to a few, some names might be known to some folks, like Myriad Genetics, is a company that spun out of the university and TVC. And Myriad brought the first diagnostic test for breast cancer to the marketplace, and so the impact on women's health has been phenomenal and the company has grown and is still headquartered right in our research park. And so, I think that there's a great story there in just the impact that Myriad has been able to have.

Another one that I think is really notable is BioFire, a company that also spun out of the university, it is a diagnostic testing company that was acquired several years ago by a French company, bioMérieux. But bioMérieux found the company was doing well in Utah and, likewise, they remain with their U.S. headquarters in our research park and they're playing a huge role right now in COVID testing.

And they do diagnostic tests for so many other things. I mentioned Recursion Pharmaceuticals earlier. It's a company that's only six years old but tremendously exciting because they're operating at the convergence of therapeutics and AI, and they're using what they refer to as digital biology as a new way to not only discover drugs, but to bring them to market faster. And so, it's exciting to see how fast they're advancing.

But I would also say we have examples that are non-monetary that I get super excited about. So, one of our faculty members in physical medicine and rehabilitation, Jeff Rosenbluth, has invented these devices that allow folks who were quadriplegics, highly complex injuries or birth defects, that prevent them from being able to be as active in society as able-bodied individuals. And we've worked with him over the last several years to help get these inventions to help folks experience what it's like to ski, for example, or boat, and I can tell you firsthand as an able-bodied individual, I got the opportunity to be in one of these skis and it was an amazing experience that it felt just like skiing, but somebody who had a severe injury could now experience and so the excitement about seeing something like that get to be commercially available, even though there's no dollar value in it for the university, it was never the motivation. So that's one great example that I like to point to where it's about the impact.

President Watkins: They really are remarkable stories from efforts at commercialization and entrepreneurship at the U. We're so grateful for the leadership that you are providing, Keith, at the next phase of this journey as we launched the PIVOT Center from a great history. I think incredible stories of impact from discovery and innovation that has happened at your University of Utah, listeners, it’s really exciting and important for you to know, yes, there are economic and monetary ways to measure impact and there are quality of life and human variables that also are very vital to our assessment of impact.

Keith, thank you for your leadership, thank you for your efforts to earn recognition for our PIVOT Center and for the important work that happens here.

Keith Marmer: Thanks so much, President Watkins.

President Watkins: Listeners, thanks for joining us today, and I hope you'll tune in for the next episode of the U Rising podcast.