Leading With Vision

University Leaders Drive University of Arizona Center for Innovation Success

By Romi Carrell Wittman

University of Arizona President Dr. Robert C. Robbins sums up the relationship between one of the world’s premier research universities and the University of Arizona Center for Innovation in a sentence: “As a land-grant university, our mission is to serve our state, and we work to build the conditions for economic prosperity. UACI is a critical part of how we pursue that mission.”

And build economic prosperity it has. Since its founding in 2003, UACI has assisted more than 1,000 entrepreneurs via workshops and training, and directly supported 255 startups. UACI has also assisted their startup companies in obtaining 66 science- and tech-focused patents and attracted more than $105 million in capital, with $47.4 million of that funding in the form of grants. 

UArizona Senior VP for Research and Innovation Elizabeth “Betsy” Cantwell shared, “It’s longevity and consistent track record of success is what makes UACI so distinct. “The UACI network, programming and facilities are a highly effective support mechanism for entrepreneurial activities that advance technology in Arizona and beyond.”

Robbins said the world-class research and innovation emanating from UArizona has ignited a bustling startup scene. “It’s an example of how we extend beyond our campus to engage our community, empowering entrepreneurs to grow businesses that create jobs, and improve lives with their innovations,” he expressed.  

He’s no stranger to creating such a culture. Robbins joined UArizona in 2017 after serving as the president and CEO of Texas Medical Center for five years. While there, he introduced five cross-institutional research initiatives. Prior to that, he was a professor and chairman of the Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery at the Stanford University School of Medicine. 

Like Robbins, Cantwell boasts an impressive career of fostering growth and creativity. Before joining UArizona in 2019, she was VP of research development at Arizona State University. Her resume has included leadership roles at the nation’s most prominent labs and institutions, including the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and NASA headquarters. In her four years at UArizona, Cantwell has managed the Office of Research, Innovation and Impact which is responsible for bringing discoveries to market via technology licensing and new company creation. She was recently selected as the 17th president of Utah State University and begins her new role in August. 

Cantwell said UACI also wants to attract businesses from outside the region and aid entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds. To date, UACI has assisted 25 international companies from 17 countries. “We now have a comprehensive international program and support businesses seeking U.S. market entry through an accredited Soft Landings program,” she said. 

UACI carries the official Soft Landings designation from the International Business Innovation Association, certifying its abilities to provide best practices when accommodating the necessary resources and programming international companies require for a smooth entry into the country. 

“Running a fast-growing tech company is extremely challenging, so UACI allows us to decrease the barriers and burden of global market expansion,” Cantwell said. 

Robbins added, “We are just beginning to see the results of UACI’s sophisticated approach to international startup support.” 

There has been great interest for UACI to duplicate its success at outpost locations. To that end, communities including Nogales, Yuma, Prescott, Douglas, Maricopa and Sierra Vista have banded together to create a rural incubator network with UACI at its core. 

As VP of Tech Parks Arizona, Carol Stewart is on the front lines serving as the president of UACI and directing its mission to grow scalable science and technology startup ventures that fuel Arizona’s economy. She has more than 20 years’ experience of university-based economic development, leading research parks and advancing technology by bringing tech ideas to the marketplace. Under her leadership, UACI has thrived and continues to grow. 

“Homegrown economic development is a powerful strategy for any municipality to invest in,” Stewart expressed. “All these efforts build a strong UArizona innovation brand and I propose that UACI will be recognized as a top 10 incubator globally in less than a decade if we continue at this rate of impact.”


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