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Five Questions for Keith Marmer of the PIVOT Center

March 8, 2021

In September 2020, the University of Utah formed the Partners for Innovations, Ventures, Outreach & Technologies (PIVOT) Center. The new center will continue the work of the Center for Technology & Venture Commercialization, while driving the university’s economic engagement with the broader Utah community. We caught up with Keith Marmer, Chief Innovation & Economic Engagement Officer, to learn more about the PIVOT Center.

What are the scope and goals of the PIVOT Center?

Both our goals and scope can be categorized into one of three pillars: technology commercialization, economic development, or corporate engagement. However, despite the three distinct areas of focus we run all three in a fully integrated manner. We can’t focus on one of the three without touching one or both of the other two. The first area of focus, technology commercialization, means we help startup companies and individual inventors through the commercialization process. From the initial disclosure through to the patent process, and introduction to the market we offer support. The center supports about $600 million in research, averages about 200 new inventions, and 50 to 70 patents a year.

The second pillar, economic development, focuses on both talent recruitment and support for companies. The center helps start between 10 to 20 new companies for technology commercialization. These companies usually bring additional investment into the state as well as provide jobs for Utahns. We also act as a catalyst for the innovation ecosystem by connecting talent with companies, the university, and other state partners.

Our third and final pillar, corporate engagement, is aimed at engaging existing Utah companies and industry experts to help our startups and drive innovation. One way we do this is by finding industry experts who can help us solve industry problems. We will also engage in joint ventures or special projects with private companies.

What resources do you offer to Utah businesses – both startups and established companies?

We offer a wide range of resources to startups and established businesses, depending on their needs and the company’s maturity. The best way to think about what we offer is as a funnel, where our resources are wide reaching at the outset and, as a company gets further along in the commercialization process, the more specialized and targeted our resources become. We help inventors make connections and educate them on the resources available to them. We also provide licensing assistance, comprehensive startup support – starting and growing companies, identifying and recruiting talent, and connecting with Utah service providers – as well as providing contacts in the investment community.

The PIVOT Center also runs three in residence programs that are designed to further catalyze innovation and startup growth. Our executive in residence program is comprised of retired serial entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. They are in the center about two to three days a week to provide insight into the business side of technology commercialization.

The second program is our entrepreneurs in residence. These are career entrepreneurs who are looking for their next startup to grow. This allows our inventors to focus on developing the technology while the entrepreneur handles the business operations. The interdisciplinary skillsets in these relationships are proven to create some of the most successful businesses in the long run.

Mentors in residence, our third and final program, is more task oriented. The mentors help inventors and startups with business tasks such as preparing to pitch to investors.

How does the Center contribute to the growth of key industries in the state like Life Sciences?

The center focuses on two main avenues to promote growth in Utah. We are continually working to bring talent together to help grow our key industries. There is untapped talent at the University of Utah, PhD and post doc students who are looking to enter the market and we have startups and industry partners looking for talent. We try to match the talent with the companies and creating additional jobs through our startups.

About 90% of the companies started through the PIVOT Center end up putting down roots in Utah creating jobs both in our research park and elsewhere in the state. Further these same companies in aggregate raised over $200 million in follow-on funding this past year, which in turn is invested within the state as companies continue to grow and expand. At any given time we have between six and twelve companies in our portfolio raising funds and we believe we will see even more of this in the coming year.

Finally, we usually have two to four of our companies acquired by bigger companies, that then make the decision to keep the Utah presence. These bigger companies will often move some of their other operations to Utah after the acquisition. This means more jobs and investment for the state and growth in the ecosystem.

What’s a brag-and-boast story from the last year that our readers should know about?

Picking one story is going to be hard. We have fit about three years’ worth of activity into the first seven months of the new center. If I had to pick just one though, it would have to be our public/private partnership with Recursion Pharmaceuticals. Recursion spun out of the university about seven years ago and we are really excited about their growth and trajectory. Last year we partnered with them to open a 15,000 square-foot wet lab incubator in Research Park. It’s one of the only wet labs in the state and certainly the largest.

Through this partnership we have focused on providing lab space to historically underrepresented founders and management teams. At the center we have made diversity, equity, and inclusion a major focus and have a created a program to help us promote those values. If someone is accepted into the accelerator and qualify, they can apply for free incubator space.

Finally, the lab has allowed us to recruit top Utah, Bay Area, and even international companies to come work in Research Park. The best and brightest companies want to be in this lab space, and we think that speaks to the attractiveness both of the lab and Utah as a place to do business.

What’s in the future for the Center?

I think the biggest thing you will see in the future for the center, is us building on the work of the past few years. The best example of this is our recently launched technology accelerators – therapeutics, orthopedic medical devices, and software. While each of the accelerators has a slightly different model, we are able to partner with industry experts to come inside and work at the earliest stages of innovation. We are already seeing the benefits of these programs. The other big thing we are focusing on is our ability to scale up this strategy and continue serving as an innovation catalyst.

Bonus Question: How do you see the Center collaborating with EDCUtah?

Well given the centers mandate and desire to grow Utah’s economy, to be a resource, and active community partner we see our mission aligned with EDCUtah’s mission. Further, our work to help grow the life science and technology industries in Utah means we can act as resource for EDCUtah and companies you are actively recruiting. The more we can figure out how to jointly communicate and engage the better we can both accomplish our missions.

Finally, I want to plug Utah’s amazing life sciences and innovation ecosystems. We have an incredibly deep and well-educated talent pool here in Utah. The existing ecosystem and business climate are supportive of startups, and the state as a whole is very business friendly. Utah is one of the more cost-effective paces to do business compared to the coastal states.

To learn more about the PIVOT Center visit: https://pivotcenter.utah.edu/

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