The UI’s smart shift in economic development

CBJ Editorial

For as long as we can remember, University of Iowa leaders have been trying to figure out economic development and the role the institution should play regionally and statewide.

This has primarily been under the auspices of the Office of the Vice President of Research (VPR). Too often, this important role was misaligned, because the university is first and foremost a research institution driven by faculty, and generating research grants is the main role of the VPR.

Generating research grants and driving economic development are quite different roles, however, with different skill sets. Many of the UI’s economic development changes over the past dozen years focused on marketing and the superficial rearranging of responsibilities rather than substantive change. The bottom line was that economic development was never someone’s top priority.

In 2012, the UI seemingly went outside the box when it hired Daniel Reed, a senior Microsoft executive to the position of vice president of research and economic development. It was a promising step, but ultimately Mr. Reed, who has his Ph.D. from Purdue University, got bogged down in academia and economic development activities were again relegated to the back burner.

In 2014, the UI launched a “We Mean Business” marketing strategy to demonstrate to people who aren’t paying attention — in particular, the Iowa Board of Regents and legislators from across the state — that the UI serves the entire state and is in fact an economic development engine.

The UI’s most recent move to hire its first-ever chief innovation officer is the most promising and most substantial change yet. We’re hopeful that for the first time the position and its roles and responsibilities are reasonably aligned.

UI President Bruce Harreld handpicked UI alum Jon Darsee to serve in this important role, which was spun off from the VPR. He will be responsible for creating jobs and managing economic development at the UI, and subsequently in the region.

Mr. Darsee has extensive venture capital connections and startup success, most notably, the medical device firm iRhythm Technologies, which grew from a bootstrapped startup in 2007 to a nearly 700-employee company that went public for an industry record-setting $107 million in 2016. He moved to Iowa City two years ago from Austin, Texas.

Importantly, Mr. Darsee is unencumbered by faculty obligations other than to help would-be entrepreneurs from across the UI’s campus. He will oversee UI Ventures, Protostudios, the UI Research Park, the Office of Corporate Engagement and MADE, a new manufacturing and e-commerce initiative by the UI, as well as a new $20 million Innovation Center, which will be created within the confines of the UI’s former art building.

Success in this new position won’t be easy in such a large and bureaucratic institution, but for the first time it appears that leadership responsibilities are aligned with leadership skill sets and that someone finally has economic development as their top priority. •