Washington, D.C.— The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) today named six universities as finalists for its ninth annual Innovation & Economic Prosperity (IEP) University Awards.

The winners will be announced during the association’s annual meeting in November. The finalists – University of Cincinnati, University of Colorado Boulder, Ohio University, Pennsylvania State University, Iowa State University, and Washington State University – are competing for four different awards that recognize exemplary and innovative case studies of economic engagement impact:

  • University of Cincinnati and Pennsylvania State University are finalists for the IEP Talent Award, recognizing exemplary initiatives in education and workforce development.
  • Iowa State University and Washington State University are finalists for the IEP Place Award for exemplary initiatives resulting in social, cultural, or community development.
  • Ohio University and University of Colorado Boulder are finalists for the IEP Innovation Award, recognizing exemplary initiatives spurring innovation, entrepreneurship, and technology-based economic development.

All six universities are finalists for the IEP Economic Engagement Connections Award, which is the top-prize in the awards competition, recognizing overall excellence and leveraging across all three award categories.

As defined by APLU’s Economic Engagement Framework – a series of tools and publications that helps institutions better know, measure, and communicate their work in economic engagement – universities collaborate with their public and private sector partners in their states and regions to promote economic growth, competitiveness, and opportunity through a variety of efforts across the categories.

“Congratulations to this year’s Innovation and Economic Prosperity University Awards finalists on their outstanding work to advance regional economic development,” said APLU President Peter McPherson. “Public research universities are major engines of economic development in their region, and the IEP finalists have distinguished themselves as leaders and models for success in this space.”

To be eligible for an IEP award, an institution must first earn the IEP designation from APLU, which recognizes institutional commitment to regional economic development. To earn the IEP designation, universities conduct a rigorous self-study of their economic engagement activities that includes input from external stakeholders. As part of the self-study, each institution identifies areas for growth and improvement within its economic engagement enterprise and developed an improvement plan. This work demonstrates a commitment to continuous learning and improvement in this kind of engagement vital to universities and their regional partners.

Nearly 70 institutions have been named IEP Universities designees since the program was launched in 2012.

More information on the finalists’ economic engagement initiatives is below.

University of Cincinnati
Seeking to meet talent needs and drive economic growth for the region, the University of Cincinnati boldly accelerated the development and attraction of talent for industry with the opening of its 1819 Innovation Hub in 2017. Noting the swift success of 1819, Governor Mike DeWine unveiled the Cincinnati Innovation District (CID) in March 2020. Powered by the University of Cincinnati, the CID envelops myriad innovation assets and access to some of the world’s leading academic and research centers, organizations and talent pools. The district’s mission is to become a globally recognized talent hub and lead a transformational movement. The combination of industry engagement, unique experiential platforms and accessible research expertise — working at the pace of change — will become a model nationwide.

University of Colorado Boulder
The University of Colorado Boulder takes a multipronged approach to regional economic development, including a major effort to develop a place-based strategy of innovation and entrepreneurship development. The university’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship initiative offers hands-on experiences for students, faculty, staff, and community and industry partners. Experiences include academic courses and co-curricular workshops, mentorship opportunities, a campus business venture competition called the New Venture Challenge, as well as a summer startup venture accelerator program, job fairs that connect students with startups, and physical maker spaces. The New Venture Challenge is the largest and longest-running venture program of its kind, connecting the campus with the Boulder community to develop and fund promising entrepreneurial ideas. Since 2009, over 700 teams have participated in NVC. Student and faculty ventures competing in NVC have gone on to raise capital, be acquired by corporate partners, and reach sustainable revenue and substantial local employment. The university’s research commercialization effort, Venture Partners, also works to help translate research breakthroughs to commercial successes. Last year, the commercialization division helped support 12 new technology startups and nearly 60 license and options agreements. Venture Partners-supported businesses employ approximately 11,500 workers and have a nearly $2 billion economic impact annually.

Ohio University
Ohio University has made community and economic engagement efforts to serve its region. The university is working to advance research and knowledge discovery that promotes vibrant communities across the state. Ohio University is: increasing its applied research to address challenges facing its communities; expanding research to support existing strengths; expanding partnerships with corporations; and supporting undergraduate research focused on enhancing community success. Ohio University’s incubator for technology startup companies, the Innovation Center, supported 335 jobs that generated an estimated $22 million in employee compensation in Athens County in 2019. Over the last six years, the business incubator’s job creation numbers have more than doubled, and employee compensation generated from its client companies has nearly tripled. Since 1996, the university’s George Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Service has worked with communities to foster local economic development, reaching more than 60 Ohio counties, including all 32 in Appalachia.

Pennsylvania State University
The LaunchBox & Innovation Hub Network began in 2015 when five Penn State campuses were awarded grants from Invent Penn State’s seed grant program to create community innovation hubs. Over the next three years, Invent Penn State expanded the network to 21 campuses, which now provides communities access to no-cost coworking spaces, makerspaces, accelerator programs, pitch competitions, speaker series, experts and mentors, business advice, legal and IP advice, micro-grants, and community engagement spaces. Each LaunchBox and innovation hub provides resources specific to the needs of their community and collaborates internally with the network, sharing programming and best practices. In the first five years, the network has engaged more than 10,000 students and faculty, assisted over 3,300 entrepreneurs, and provided free legal and intellectual property consultations to more than 1,500 ventures. During this time, more than 160 startups have formed with help from Invent Penn State.

Iowa State University
Iowa State University takes a comprehensive and innovative approach to commercializing research insights and supporting businesses across the state. The university hosts America’s Small Business Development Centers Iowa (SBDC), providing no-cost, customized business consulting across the state’s 99 counties to help entrepreneurs and small business owners address their greatest challenges. SBDC provides workshops teaching practical skills and techniques, market research, and access to subject-matter experts. SBDC has served as an economic development hub for small businesses, and has established partnerships to reach all areas of the state. These connections allow for increased access to resources for all Iowa residents interested in starting or growing a business and include Spanish-speaking advisors to support the Hispanic community. Efforts include bringing digital resources and marketing to rural and underserved markets, as well as providing financial literacy training for minority business owners and supporting their efforts to raise capital. The university’s extension arm has created the Rural Housing Readiness Assessment (RHRA), which helps participating communities learn where to find information they need, how to interpret the data, and how to incorporate it into decisions for their community.

Washington State University
Washington State University has taken a multifaceted approach to fostering innovation across the state. When the pandemic exacerbated long-standing inequalities in the state, the university quickly sprung into action to address them. Drawing on relationships it developed over decades of work with communities statewide, Washington State’s Extension division reached out to a host of public and private partners to launch a drive-in Wi-Fi hotspots project. One in ten rural residents in the state lack access to broadband and the pandemic threatened to cut off entire communities from digital access that enabled learning, remote work, and telemedicine. Partnering with the Washington State Broadband Office and Washington State Library, the university launched the drive-in Wi-Fi access effort in April 2020. The project grew to involve dozens of partners and over 600 drive-in Wi-Fi hotspots, enabling anyone to park and access high-quality, high-speed Internet. Although not a permanent solution to the broadband needs in Washington state, these hotspots provide free, publicly available emergency access in response to the pandemic. WSU continues to expand its network of Drive-In Wi-Fi hotspots to help provide the high-speed Internet connections necessary for distance learning, remote work, telemedicine, and day-to-day essential services. Over 4,588 individuals accessed the WSU drive-in locations alone. WSU also harnessed its internal assets to make sure this information was widely disseminated through social media, email, and physical mail both in English and Spanish.