Research Park: A look back, a look forward for award-winning innovation ecosystem

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.


In 1968, the University of Utah purchased 300 acres along the valley’s east bench to create a hub where up-and-coming companies could set down roots, grow and develop innovative products and provide jobs for entrepreneurs and researchers. This year, Research Park received a national award for its fulfillment of that goal. What’s next for Research Park? Patti Ross, chief business strategy officer, and Jon Bates, executive director of the Department of Real Estate Administration, discuss the past and future of Research Park in this episode of U Rising. Recorded on Monday, Nov. 23, 2020. Thanks to Brooke Adams and Dave White for technical assistance. Original music by Taylor Hartley.

President Ruth Watkins: Hello. Welcome to the U Rising podcast, where you get to meet wonderful people who are making great things happen at the University of Utah. I'm Ruth Watkins, president of the U.

In 1968, the university began Research Park. Research Park had the goal of stimulating economic development in the state, particularly in areas related to health and bio sciences. New companies in these areas and now many others—spinoffs from U research—needed a place to establish themselves, to recruit students and also launch their companies.

Some of our most innovative companies call Research Park home: Myriad Genetics, BioFire, Sarcos, ARUP and many, many more. Today, we have some wonderful news to share with you. The U’s Research Park has been named one of the country's most outstanding research parks.

This is wonderful recognition for the University of Utah, and I have a couple of guests today that are going to tell you more about it—Patti Ross and Jon Bates. They'll give us some information about how we have achieved excellence at our Research Park, and the kind of impacts that has on Utah's economy. Patti is the university's chief business strategy officer. Patti, warmest welcome to you.

Patti Ross: Hello, President. Thank you so much.

President Watkins: And Jonathon is the executive director of the Department of Real Estate Administration at the university. Jonathan, warmest welcome to you.

Jonathon Bates: Thanks, President. Very happy to be here.

President Watkins: I'm delighted to have you both. Patti, can you give a little bit of history about Research Park? I mentioned its launch in 1968 but I think it would be helpful for listeners to understand a little bit about the concept behind that launch, and just a little bit of how common this is at other institutions, and how it came to be that we were really, I think, kind of visionary.

Patti Ross: Yes. Thank you. As you mentioned, the park was launched in 1968. Just to offer a little bit of history on that. Formerly Fort Douglas had been located on this land parcel and in the mid-sixties, they determined that they no longer needed this land for their efforts. At the time, Governor Rampton formed a committee and identified potential uses for this land, reviewed over 30 proposals from both public and private entities. And it was determined that of the acreage, 300 acres would be best used as a university research park.

The legislature then approved this designation, and the university acquired the 300 acres for $2.50 an acre. That's obviously a very long time ago. But as far as the initial companies located in the park, shortly after this designation a couple of buildings were constructed on Wakara Way, and those housed the initial companies, one being Evans & Sutherland, which we know is in the park for a very time, Terra Tech, and also Utah Biological Testing Laboratory.

So, all in, there were about 300 employees in the park. You alluded to the question of what was the original vision and why were we determined to be the best use for this land? The vision was really to create a research-oriented, an innovative ecosystem. There were a number of goals delineated in the actual parcel designation, but some of the most important ones were increased research opportunities for both faculty and grad students, additional opportunities to partner with industry on research and development, and also to create employment opportunities for Utah's graduates specifically in the STEM field, so that they would remain in Utah. And this generated tremendous economic impact to the state of Utah, and I think our predecessors would have called it a success if they saw it today.

President Watkins: Well, I sure think so, too, and I want to give then-Governor Rampton my compliments for choosing wisely. Let's talk about that impact on Utah's economy. What do we know about the businesses that are there now, how they contribute to economic development, and employment in Utah?

Patti Ross: Right. As you mentioned, here we are 50 years later, and who would have imagined how fantastic this is. And to a point in your earlier question, no, every university does not have a research park. As a matter of fact, there aren't even research parks in every state. We're very fortunate to have this entity, and it's really a jewel in the crown here. But the majority of companies in the park are bio- and health sciences-oriented. And in terms of the economic impact to the state, an interesting fact: About 50% of Utah's jobs in those sectors can trace their origins back to the university and to Research Park.

So, from those original three companies and two buildings that I mentioned, 50 years ago roughly, we now have 48 companies in the park. We have about 81 university entities in the park and all in, there are roughly 14,000 employees and over 4 million square feet of space on those 300 acres. And as you mentioned at the outset, some of the largest companies in the park are indeed spin-outs from the U, one being BioFire Diagnostics. They have about 1,500 employees. Myriad Genetics, who's also a spin-out company, has about 1,000 employees. And, of course, you mentioned ARUP, which spun out of the pathology department in the mid-eighties, and they now have over 4,000 employees in the park and are really at the cutting edge of diagnostic testing. As a matter of fact, I think announced today was the test that they generated that can test RSV, COVID-19 and influenza all in one. They're really impactful and a great presence in our park.

President Watkins: Those are really spectacular examples. I have to say, I think back in 1968 there were people who had the One U vision long before I did because so much was happening there that integrated health science and engineering, and, frankly, entrepreneurship, commercialization and business. It's a remarkable story. Well, Jonathon, let's bring you into the conversation. Maybe you have a few high points from your work in real estate development about economic impact of the park.

Jonathon Bates: Thank you, President. As Patti mentioned, the Research Park is currently home to 48 companies. Over that 50-year history, roughly 37,000 jobs have been created from innovation and commercialization in Research Park, with approximately 98% of them still residing in Utah. This represents around $2.1 billion in annual wages. Another important fact, and one that I think has special meeting in the time that we're dealing with right now, is the resiliency of this real estate market. Over the last 10 plus years, Research Park has experienced less than 5% vacancy. And this resiliency is especially strong during times of economic uncertainty such as the one that we're in today, where we currently have a vacancy rate near 0%.

President Watkins: You know, I think that's remarkable because as I talked to my other peers, presidents at other universities, many of them are not having that same experience. My compliments to you for leadership in this area. I'm guessing it's that same leadership that won us this recognition from the Association of University Research Parks. We're excited about this award. Tell us more about it.

Jonathon Bates: AURP is a professional association whose membership includes leaders engaged in cultivating communities of innovation. At anchor institutions like universities, municipalities, federal labs, and corporations, AURP's mission is to foster innovation, commercialization and economic growth through university, industry and government partnerships. The outstanding Research Park of the Year Award recognizes parks that have created successful and exceptional innovation ecosystems, supporting the development of new ideas from inception to market, resulting in positive impacts for their local and regional communities. Especially important to me is that this award is acknowledgement from our peers that the university and our region is truly an economic and commercialization powerhouse. Through embracing our entrepreneurial spirit, we are being recognized as successfully innovating and creating new products and services that improve livelihoods.

President Watkins: Jon, such a big deal to earn this national award. How did you find out about it?

Jonathon Bates: So, it has been a great honor to earn this award and was actually quite a unique experience. While during the online conference this year, we were actually announced and recognized as the recipient of this award. We had submitted an application and through a committee of our peers, we were selected and it's a huge giant honor. We're excited to celebrate it in person when we host the international conference next year.

President Watkins: It's all going to line up beautifully for October 2021. We'll be the host and the award recipient. Congratulations to you, Jon, to you, Patti. Very, very important work for the well-being of Utahns, and equally important for our faculty innovators and discovers who would not want to be at the University of Utah if we were not cutting edge in this area. Important things are happening here for well-being in Utah. I think in recognition of all those achievements, we have earned the right to host the Association's International Conference in October of 2021 when we certainly hope to be in person. How many people do you expect to attend? Patti, give us a little flavor for what will happen at that conference.

Patti Ross: Sure. Yes, of course. Typically, about 300 attendees join us for these conferences. The one that will be held here in Salt Lake City will be October 18 through the 21 of 2021. People come from all across the nation and even around the globe, and oftentimes you'll see university representatives, park executives, researchers, innovators, some government officials that might be affiliated with economic development agencies. It's a great collection of individuals from a very broad spectrum of areas of expertise, and it's a great opportunity to share best practices and to understand what's going on around the world.

President Watkins: You know, you can really see why innovators and entrepreneurs—and even residents—want to live near a research park. It is a vibrant ecosystem, and such an exciting one for us to showcase. I know that you, Jon, have been leading efforts to think about the future. And maybe we should just talk a little bit about the near-term future if we looked at just sort of five or 10 years. How do you see the Research Park evolving in the near future?

Jonathon Bates: Yes, thank you. It has been a really great experience over the last 15 to 24 months to work on an idea for an updated strategic vision. The strategic vision is focused on evaluating opportunities and strategies for reinforcing the successful Research Park that we have today for the foreseeable future. So, how do we continue to create a physical environment that fosters intentional and unintentional collisions between innovators? The ‘bumpability’ factor as I like to call it between students, faculty, staff, industry partners and beyond. How do we address and mitigate issues that additional development creates for us in our community?

For example, we have invested significantly in developing partnerships with Salt Lake City, UDOT and UTA, and incorporated into our vision strategies focused on mitigating impacts of future development on traffic and congestion, improving equitable access to transit, active transportation solution. We have also been evaluating how to support the evolution of Research Park from a suburban model of the 1980s to a more vibrant, active and inviting neighborhood with a mix of land uses. The inclusion of housing will allow for a 24/7 occupancy that not only opens the door to addressing equitable access to affordable housing solutions for our faculty, staff and industry partners, but will assist in also mitigating future single-occupant vehicle trip generation. Development of housing will be supported by market demands. And at this time, we are forecasting the potential demand for 800 units over the next 10 years.

We have also focused extensively on leading out on sustainable and ecological design principles, evolving our protective covenants and design guidelines to reinforce these principles going forward. All of these concepts and ideas have been the result of many conversations with our community and stakeholders. This is very much a work in process, and we welcome and look forward to additional feedback and insight.

President Watkins: Jon and Patti, we are so proud of what our Research Park has accomplished. Thank you for the leadership that you have provided. It really is remarkable both for innovation, improvement of quality of life, and supporting Utah's economy. We give you huge round of applause for your great work.

I also want our listeners to know that we are engaged in dialogue with our community as we plan for the future, and you and your voice will be an important part of that future. We appreciate how much this Research Park matters to all of us. Patti and Jonathan, thank you so much for your remarkable work. Our university Research Park is an incredible asset for the citizens of Utah, for our community and, of course, for our campus innovators and entrepreneurs. We're thrilled. Thanks for your great work.

Patti Ross: Thank you, President, for this opportunity.

Jonathon Bates: Thank you, President.

President Watkins: I'm so grateful to you both. Listeners, thanks for joining us today and being part of this conversation and know that you will be part of continuing conversations about the future of Research Park. I hope you'll all tune in for the next edition of the U Rising podcast.