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Economic Development Initiatives

Connect Businesses to University

By Catherine Doss

Spectrum Volume 20 Issue 27 - April 9, 1998

(Editor's Note: This article about Virginia Tech's economic-development initiatives is part four in a series about outreach at the university. Future articles will highlight other units within the Outreach Division: international research and development, distance learning, and public service. A final article will focus on Extension and its critical role in the outreach mission.)
To some, community economic development may seem far removed from the academic circles of a major research institution like Virginia Tech. But in fact, just the opposite is true.
"As a land-grant institution, our mission is to take our knowledge base and apply it to the world outside the university," said John Phillips, economic-development officer. "The greatest accomplishments we make in economic development are done by simply carrying out the university mission."
Economic-development initiatives connect business to the university's resources, including sponsored-research opportunities, continuing-education and professional-development programs, business and technical assistance, corporate-location opportunities, technology for new products and start-ups, and human resources. Phillips works with both the Outreach Division and the President's Office.
"By linking business with the expertise of our faculty members and programs, the university has a major impact on the creation of jobs and wealth within a given community," Phillips said. This prosperity comes from the retention of existing business and industry, the expansion (and in many cases improvement) of existing industry, and the attraction of new enterprises to a given region.
Recognizing the contribution that state colleges and universities could make to communities throughout the state, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) requested several years ago that each institution appoint an individual to oversee economic-development programs. When Virginia Tech brought Phillips on board in February 1997, it was the first university in the state and among the first nationally to create a new position for an individual with the sole responsibility of connecting economic-development initiatives with the external community.
This model was later adopted by other major universities such as Cornell.
With the appointment of Phillips, President Paul Torgersen stated the university was creating a "front door" through which the business community could access university resources. Phillips serves as an initial point of contact for business and industry representatives looking for university assistance. Studies have shown that businesses tend to not utilize university resources as much as they could for a number of reasons, including perceived negative factors such as complexity, inefficiency, and cost.
"Dealing with a university as complex as ours can be confusing and frustrating to those outside our doors," Phillips said. "My role is to direct people to the appropriate unit or division and to ease the entry process. I also conduct follow-up to ensure a connection is made and in some cases, direct inquiries to more appropriate resources."
This one-stop-shopping concept apparently is catching on, as Phillips averages nearly two dozen inquiries per month from businesses and individuals seeking assistance. They're looking for help with everything from where to go to initiate a sponsored-research project, to assistance in locating an individual with expertise in solving a specific business problem, to learning more about the university's purchasing process.
Another aspect of Phillips' role is to coordinate various economic-development initiatives and bring together the expertise of individuals from the myriad of economic-development-related activities that take place across campus. Some of these initiatives include establishing an internal economic-development work group that meets monthly to discuss issues and concerns and share information; creation of a comprehensive shared business and industry database; and developing a collaborative marketing plan for the university.
Phillips also facilitates an economic-development advisory council comprised of state-renowned business and industry leaders external to the university. Meeting twice a year, this group provides guidance and an invaluable perspective on the manner in which the university is meeting the needs of the external business community.
Phillips also visits with business re-location prospects both locally and across the state and assists various municipal economic-development groups.
"When we provide assistance for the betterment of our region and state, both the community and the university benefit," Phillips said. "Our economic-development efforts take the mission upon which the university was founded--to serve the citizens of Virginia--and put it in a modern context."