For Two Decades

Business Incubator Drives Economic Growth

By Romi Carrell Wittman 

Whether it’s for babies or business, an incubator provides a nurturing ecosystem with ample resources and support to ensure long-term growth and success. The University of Arizona Center for Innovation – or UACI – is the  university’s startup incubator network and has been fueling southern Arizona’s economy by nurturing  scalable startup  businesses for two decades.

Since its inception in 2003, UACI has supported some 255 startups with a focus on science and tech ventures in the fields of biotechnology, environmental science, aerospace, renewable energy and more. UACI helps entrepreneurs with the building blocks of launching a business by providing direct access to people, programming and places that help entrepreneurs take their companies from idea to market. Many startup founders share common challenges and UACI bridges the gap with centralized resources to accelerate inventions and scale business operations. 

Companies from within the region, across the nation and around the world must apply and be accepted by UACI. If accepted, they go through a highly structured, yet customizable, educational program featuring skilled mentors, advisors and community collaborators. In addition, UACI provides startups with a host of resources, including physical offices, wet and dry labs, a prototyping center, meeting spaces as well as administrative support. 

In 2021, UACI’s work with startups resulted in $35.3 million in economic impact to Southern Arizona plus $2 million in tax revenue. Of additional importance, 26% of the incubator’s startups are women-owned, compared to just 6% nationwide; 60% of its startups are minority owned; and 46%  have a connection to UArizona either through technology licensed by the university or founders that are alumni or graduate students. Over the last 20 years, UACI startups have managed to fundraise over $105 million dollars in equity investment, federal grants and other awards.

“Over the course of the next 30    years, UACI will create an estimated 18,875 jobs, generate over $600 million in wages, produce $1.5 billion in economic activity, and create nearly $85 million in state and local tax revenues,” noted Eric Smith, UACI’s executive director.

“UACI has done an incredible job helping startups from the university and tech community realize their commercial market potential,” said Elizabeth “Betsy” Cantwell, UArizona’s senior vice president of research and innovation. “It’s how we ensure that our work reaches far beyond the university and translates into benefits for real people.”

Smith has been UACI’s executive director since 2019. When asked what he loves most about his job, Smith didn’t hesitate. “We get to look into the future. All the tech and the companies the marketplace won’t see for many years, we get to see now,” Smith shared. 

 “We’re an incubator, meaning we don’t have the 3-to-6-month sprints that an accelerator does,” he said. “Our companies are early- to mid-stage startups and come from within the community and across the world. Some come from our collaborators such as Tech Launch Arizona locally and the U.S. State Department on the international front.” 

UACI focuses exclusively on scalable science and tech businesses. “We look for something new or novel,” Smith emphasized. “That typically requires some investment to validate the technology. These types of companies are typically acquired or have some kind of exit within five years.”  

Companies are onboarded into UACI year-round. Each business completes a baseline assessment to determine where the company needs support along the UACI 27-point program roadmap, a program they formalized in 2020. 

“We benchmarked what we were doing against all the best incubators in the world and that’s how we came up with the roadmap,” Smith added. “The map represents about two years of work and most companies stay with us the full two years.” 

UACI, which is part of the Tech Parks Arizona family, is headquartered at the UA Tech Park at Rita Road, and has several other outposts throughout the state, including Oro Valley, Biosphere 2, Town of Sahuarita, and Vail, with new locations coming to the UA Tech Park at The Bridges and Sierra Vista. UACI is completely self-supported through revenues generated by Tech Parks Arizona, a separate 501(c)(3) established to grow, attract and retain technology companies in alignment with the goals of the University of Arizona. 

UACI is a leader in the entrepreneurial ecosystem and has long served the region’s strong and vibrant community of innovators. Carol Stewart, VP of Tech Parks Arizona, added that UACI serves as a foundational building block for startups and the economy. “The UACI incubator network facilitates the growth of startups thus expanding industry through innovation. We develop dynamic, interactive communities where innovators and business leaders unite creating a technology sandbox,” Stewart said. “The synergy between emerging companies and technology giants when they work side-by-side is electric.” 

UACI has some of the most exceptional infrastructure and programming for startups in Southern Arizona and that is why it now has the largest concentration of startups anywhere in the state. 

“UACI is having unprecedented success and it is our mandate to share our expertise across the state,” Stewart expressed.

Cantwell agrees. 

“As a top  public research university and the state’s designated land grant institution, it is integral to our mission to translate our work into community and economic impact,” Cantwell said. “Leveraging the strength of our research enterprise to support startups and the innovation ecosystem in Tucson is where we excel.” 


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