Michael Pazzani is the vice chancellor for research and economic development at UC Riverside. Photo credit: Carlos Puma.
RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Federal funding to the University of California, Riverside has increased by $8 million in 12 months (March 31, 2013 to March 31, 2014), a particularly welcome development at a time when federal funding cuts have cast a dark shadow on universities. The campus has a goal of tripling funding in about ten years, requiring an annual growth of about 14 percent.
“This is not unheard of,” says UC Riverside’s Michael Pazzani, the vice chancellor for research and economic development, who joined the university in 2012. “It will require a lot of hard work from everyone on campus. Other universities have experienced that kind of growth. So we know it is achievable.”
In the next five years, Pazzani wants to see the university gain a bigger market share.
“We want to do better than the 50 universities ahead of us,” he says. “We are currently among the top 100 universities. We have aspirations to moving into the top 50 universities.”
Months after Pazzani joined UCR, the Office of Research and Economic Development hired a director of economic development to reach out to local, state and federal funding sources. Earlier this year, the office hired a director of new ventures to help faculty and students prepare business plans that would make them more fundable by angel investors and venture capitalists.
Q&A with Pazzani
Q. What kinds of industry-UCR partnerships would you like to see?
More and more companies are looking to universities as partners when they apply for federal grants. For example, a good number of Department of Defense grants want combined basic research and systems integration. Realistically, UCR — or any university — is not in a position to do systems integration, but having that industrial partner is an important way to approach the Department of Defense, in particular, for basic-research funding. The UCR home page has a button for industry. It provides an overview of what UCR has to offer industries: our graduating students as future employees and our current students as interns, to list just two examples.
Research across the board at the university is attracting industry attention. The Bourns College of Engineering continues to draw interest from industry. Our faculty in chemistry are working with industry also. There is expertise in statistics that we are finding ways for the outside world to tap into. In plant pathology, fundamental research on plants or plant diseases is being transferred to industry. Entomology is another strong area of interest where industry is concerned. Anandasankar Ray’s work is very appealing to industry, and has already resulted in the Kite Patch and DEET substitutes. Industry is also interested in our Citrus Variety Collection. We are forming a consortium of companies to support this prized collection, the goal being to maintain it the way you would maintain a library — a living library. Industry is very interested in tapping into this collection for inspirations on new flavors and fragrances.
Q. How could UCR play a role in the region’s economic development?
No doubt inland Southern California needs economic development. Not much venture investment has taken place in the Inland Empire in even the past decade. In comparison, more investment is taking place in Orange County, San Diego, Los Angeles, and, of course, Silicon Valley. One of my goals is to form a bridge between our faculty and the investment community to help boost investment in the Inland Empire, which is why we hired a director of new ventures.
We are helping our faculty meet investors halfway. Many of our faculty understand basic science but do not always know the best steps to commercialize it. Understandably, for many faculty members, getting more funding is the next step — which is quite different from securing commercial funding. The commercial world, as we know, is more interested in how you take a discovery and turn it into a product.
We worked with the County and City of Riverside to open up an incubator — space rented out to startups at greatly reduced rent — in downtown Riverside. It began operations earlier this year. Subsidized heavily by the county, the incubator is open to any Riverside entrepreneur who qualifies. I serve on the advisory board along with several members of the community. We anticipate many of the companies in the incubator will be technology-driven, giving UCR an advantage.
Q. What do you foresee in the next five or 10 years for the campus and the region?
We have started to put in place ideas that other universities are implementing to boost economic development. We have created a collaborative seed fund to invest in our faculty to get early data that would make them more attractive to federal funding. We hold workshops regularly to get faculty to work together on big projects — projects about big data, aging, image processing and health care disparities. And we are sending our faculty more often to Washington, D.C., to meet with officials.
Because interactions with industry are important to our commercialization activities, I recently formed a Technology Partnership Advisory Council. We had our first meeting last year, and we met again on April 22. This is an endeavor that greatly helps us network. About half the board members are alumni. The other half is comprised of entrepreneurs from all over Southern California. Riverside is an area that has been underserved by venture investment and corporate ties and, as a consequence, investors probably have better opportunities to harvest here.
In terms of federal funding, the university’s health is good. Funding to UCR from the National Institutes of Health is increasing due, in part, to the growth of our medical school. In future, we expect to see a lot more federal funding and corporate interactions around the School of Medicine.
Q. What opportunities does UCR have for federal funding?
We have many opportunities for federal funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy. We continue to tap into also the National Endowment for the Humanities, NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Highway Administration, the U.S Agency for International Development, the National Endowment for the Arts, and other agencies. I should mention that 25 percent of our NSF funding supports our biological sciences and another 25 percent supports computer science.
Q. What about state and regional funding?
We continue to look for funding opportunities in the California Air Resources Board, the California Energy Commission, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the California Department of Education and the California Department of Food and Agriculture, to name a few. The county is another source of funding we have tapped into; our Graduate School of Education received a grant of about half a million dollars from the Riverside County Office of Education.
Q. UCR’s Governmental and Community Relations Office recently had two new hires: Kaitlin Chell, the director of federal relations, and Angel Rodriguez, the associate director of regional relations. How are these new hires going to change how the Office of Research and Economic Development works with the Governmental and Community Relations Office?
One of Kaitlin Chell’s responsibilities is how best UCR can work with the federal legislative process — something we had not focused in depth on before. It should place us in a better position to apply for, and secure, certain funding, such as funding dedicated to drought research. As a university, we want to push for funds set aside for Hispanic-serving institutions (HSI). Kaitlin will also help coordinate visits by UCR faculty and administrators to Washington, D.C., to meet with officials in the federal government. We expect her efforts will greatly expand our capabilities in identifying federal funding sources. She will also help us monitor federal budget trends and programs.
Angel Rodriguez will help us strengthen our relations with the county and region. He will help communicate our key messages in economic development, and he will look for new partnership opportunities to better position us in the region.
UCR is at a turning point. We have a new chancellor who is gung ho on executing on our strategic plan. With both federal funding and faculty recruiting, the university wants to see a streamlined path to turning our basic discoveries into products that benefit the world. For such commercialization to bear fruit, strong partnerships with the local community, state agencies, national agencies and, sometimes, even global institutions are crucial.