Opinion – UW Is Doubling Down to Support Economic Growth in Wyoming

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Ed Seidel, President of the University of Wyoming

By Ed Seidel, President of the University of Wyoming

February 8, 2024 — American universities, as engines of innovation and economic growth across the nation, are the envy of the world, and nowhere is this more important than in Wyoming. As the state’s land-grant and only four-year institution of higher learning, the University of Wyoming adds significantly to the state’s economy and has for years supported growth in some of its most important market sectors, such as oil and gas, mineral extraction and agriculture. This support comes in producing graduates to work in those sectors, conducting research to address challenges and collaborating on new ideas and activities around those key legacy industries.

But UW has in recent years been systematically laying a foundation for broader economic impact. With support from state leaders, we have upped our game through our Tier-1 Engineering Initiative and Science Initiative, along with the Gov. Mark Gordon-led Wyoming Innovation Partnership with the community colleges and select state agencies. We have launched new initiatives in computing and data science; outdoor recreation, tourism and hospitality; and entrepreneurship. These efforts are starting to bear fruit.

In the 2022-23 fiscal year, UW hit a major milestone, with $150 million in research and development expenditures from federal grants, corporate-sponsored research and other sources that come from outside the state block grant that supports UW. It was the first time that level of external R&D funding has ever been achieved, showing that UW is rising to the challenge to drive innovation in new and current sectors in support of Wyoming’s economy. With some major grants obtained in 2023, this number is likely to increase in the future. For example, UW’s School of Energy Resources alone received $95 million in grants to address Wyoming’s energy and mining industry needs. 

More is on the way. In response to the national need to accelerate U.S. innovation and to compete globally, the federal CHIPs and Science Act, passed into law just a year and half ago, initiated a major restructuring of federal R&D efforts to create programs that aim to enhance economic outcomes for regional economies. Two examples of this new approach are the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Innovation Engines and the Economic Development Administration’s (EDA) Tech Hubs. UW is ready and moving swiftly to take advantage of this restructuring to ensure Wyoming’s participation in this historic American innovation push.

Last week, NSF announced the creation of 10 “Innovation Engines” — one of the single largest broad investments in place-based R&D in the nation’s history — uniquely placing science and technology as a central driver for regional economic competitiveness. Out of 188 proposals, our collaboration with Colorado universities and state agencies — called the CO-WY Engine — was selected to receive $15 million, with the possibility of growing to $160 million over the next decade. This is a major development that will provide UW with resources and platforms to expand our research capabilities, fostering groundbreaking innovations and aiming to create new companies that will help shape the future Wyoming economy.

Additionally, UW recently was one of 18 institutions nationwide selected to receive a portion of the total of $100 million from NSF to accelerate the pace and scale of translational research to grow the nation’s economy. The UW award of $6 million over four years will allow us to reengineer our research and commercialization enterprise and create the Wyoming Translation Research Accelerator, whose overall aim is to turn UW research into commercial applications. Expected outcomes include an increase in industry collaborations and startups, diversification of the state’s economy and greater workforce development.

This builds on our College of Business’ award-winning entrepreneurship program and our nascent Wyoming Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, which give students the tools to start and grow their own businesses right here in Wyoming.

To enhance our ability to work with companies to address their needs — connecting them with our great students for internships and with faculty to carry out R&D projects that will advance their businesses — we have just announced the creation of the Office of Industry and Strategic Partnerships.

We continue to pursue other opportunities to help UW catalyze economic growth in the state. UW is a key member of two NSF regional innovation engine planning grants: one with the University of Montana focused on precision forestry, a second with Montana State University dealing with quantum computing. Yet another opportunity for economic development is provided by EDA Tech Hubs. UW is involved in an application with Idaho on nuclear energy, as well as another application on quantum computing that is led by Elevate Quantum, a Front Range-based consortium of quantum industries.

These are just a few of the efforts underway to ensure UW is expanding its research portfolio to support and strengthen our traditional industries while looking for opportunities to diversify and expand our economy to power Wyoming’s future. We are definitely on a roll — and just getting started.