University tries to incubate a few good inventions
Salt Lake City — A radar sheep-finder . . . a hand-held weather forecasting calculator . . . an electric moped . . . a new computer ''chip'' design.
Dozens of such inventions have come to the doorstep of te University of Utah ever since it opened the Utah Innovation Center four years ago.
Many have come, but few are chosen.
''Backyard inventors are good people, but they aren't going to put the United States ahead in the technological race,'' Wayne Brown, the center's director, says. ''What we need to do in this country is foster small high-technology companies. And we're not doing that very well now.''
The university, which also opened a ''research park'' for high-tech firms near its campus over a decade ago as well as starting the innovation center in 1978, claims to have spawned over two dozen high-technology companies from its research labs.
The ''U,'' as it is known in the Salt Lake area, ranks among the top 25 American universities receiving federal research dollars, mainly in the health areas.
''We're the basic resource in manpower training for the state's new companies ,'' says university vice-president R.J. Snow.
Besides manpower, however, the university provides the ideas and the nurturing process for high-tech nestlings. As an academic institution, the school has not been uneasy in promoting private enterprise, even though critics say trade secrets and product liability could possibly compromise scholarly freedom. ''If you look at it from society's point of view, the innovation center makes sense,'' says Dr. Brown, who has helped hatch three companies himself.
The innovation center started under a $250,000 National Science Foundation grant. By tapping the advice of
professors, selected inventors are given help in perfecting their devices. The center also provides office space, labs, secretaries, accounting, legal aid - and even up-front
capital - to get an invention from blueprint to small business.
''Every inventor in the country thinks the center is a mecca,'' complains Dr. Brown, former dean of engineering at the university. Of over a 1,000 ideas that have come in (many of them ''energy saving'' devices for car engines), about 100 were taken seriously, and only 8 accepted.
Of the 8, 2 have been outright failures, 3 are still forming, and 3 are nearly commercially viable, says Dr. Brown, who says that an average five to 10 years is needed for a company to get off the ground. One successful project has been a graphics systems for TV weather forecasting, built by meteorology graduate Steven Root.
No sooner did the center itself get going, however, than the Reagan administration cut off the NSF funds, which stopped flowing this spring. But surely an innovation center should be a natural self-starter.
So Dr. Brown, along with other university colleagues, have rounded up $3 million in promised capital for what can be called a private venture in private venture assistance. A new building planned for next year will house the same services for inventors, who will be selected on the basis of a financial return to the newly reorganized innovation center. University professors would still be tapped for help, Dr. Brown says. Controlled Data Corporation, the large Minneapolis-based computer company, has agreed to help by setting up an inventors' workshop in the new center.
The idea of private innovation centers has attracted many governments around the world, he adds. But until this one hits pay dirt, it will be its own best client.