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A year after the Legislature spanked and then reformed the Utah Science Technology and Research (USTAR) initiative, the agency's new leaders and lawmakers said Monday they are still undecided whether it is worth its current $22 million annual pricetag.
"The jury is still out in my mind and in the board's mind about USTAR," board chairman Greg Bell, a former lieutenant governor, told a budget committee. He said reaching a final judgment may take another year.
The agency seeks to turn university research into job-producing companies. A legislative audit in 2013 slammed the program for exaggerating the number of jobs it had created and how much it had benefited Utah's economy.
The Legislature then passed reforms last year designed to fix many of the problems identified with lack of oversight, accountability and measurable goals and the agency hired a new director and replaced many board members.
Bell said new leaders spent the last year figuring out what kind of commitments had been made to scientists, how likely ongoing research is to create companies and how the agency should conduct business in the future.
Some projects USTAR had funded were merely in early research stages, Bell said, and far from the point where they might be turned into businesses.
"Some of them we need to cut loose," he said. "They are tremendous research, but we can't see them making jobs and profit for the state of Utah in the range of time we have. We're not long-term investors. We're barely mid-term investors."
Bell added that USTAR will seek to ensure that its funding goes to projects likely to produce something marketable in about four to six years.
Bell also warned that he has found that most start-up businesses tend to have fewer than 10 employees, and at maturity may have only 30 or so employees so they may not be the job-creating and economic engines the state hoped. But he said occasionally, a new company can hire hundreds of employees.
USTAR plans to conduct a study of similar agencies nationwide, to help it figure what is working and what is not to help guide its plans, Bell said. And it is converting what had been many "hand-shake" agreements with researchers into firm contracts to control costs.
Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, said, "I agree the jury is still out, but I hope we don't throw out the good with the bad."