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2020 IEP "Innovation" Award Finalist Spotlight: The University of Memphis

September 21, 2020

By Dr. Jasbir Dhaliwal, Executive Vice President, Division of Research & Innovation;
Dr. Cody Behles, Associate Director, Innovation & Research Support
Division of Research & Innovation; Mary Ann Dawson MBA, Assistant Director, Operations & Marketing
Division of Research & Innovation at the University of Memphis


This article is included as part of APLU's Innovation and Economic Prosperity Universities Designation and Awards Perspectives Blog. Read other articles around strategies, programs, and impact of APLU's IEP designees at Earn APLU’s IEP designation. Learn more at

APLU’s Innovation and Economic Prosperity Award celebrates dynamism and ingenuity of universities that have addressed challenges facing not only their local communities, but the larger higher education landscape. Given these unprecedented times, this award is more salient now than ever. The University of Memphis’ (UofM) IEP award application highlights three case studies rooted in a culture that defines itself through not only innovative solutions to big challenges, but also resilience in the face of real need. As the only comprehensive research university in a city of more than 1 million people consistently ranked among the poorest in the nation, the University of Memphis is creating outsized impacts through innovative solutions.
Our first study, UMRF Ventures – a wholly owned subsidiary of UofM Research Foundation (UMRF), has created a viable solution for reducing student debt. Sixty-nine percent of students in America today are forced to take loans to pay for college, with an average debt of $31,172 at graduation. At the University of Memphis, financial limitation is cited as the single greatest hurdle to graduation. To address this, UofM partnered with industry collaborators to create high-paying white-collar career opportunities that bring work to campus. In its first year of operation (FY18), the company turned a profit and to date has earned more than $5 million in revenue, with an estimated $8 million by year four. So far, more than 500 students (many from disadvantaged backgrounds) have had their debt reduced by working with Fortune 500 companies. Because the company is owned by our research foundation, profits from the company are used to grow research capacity – all NSF CAREER winners in the last two years have received junior professorships.

Redefining how higher education works with industry is at the heart of our economic development innovation strategy. The second case study – UMRF Research Park – contributes to our wider urban ecosystem by bringing the strength of a comprehensive research institution to the entrepreneurial landscape. Centers of innovation in the United States are defined by a geographic concentration of higher education institutions and companies that are born in those institutions. Attracting innovative companies from across the world is necessary for cities like Memphis, which hosts only one comprehensive research institution, and to do that, we must leverage the resources that distinguish us. For the UofM, those resources are research expertise, talent pipelines and dynamic innovation ecosystems. For the City of Memphis, those resources are the world’s largest airfreight hub, a topflight medical device industry and a city ready to embrace innovators. The research park brought these together, and companies interested in plugging into this extensive network came from across North America. In total, 30 early-stage companies committed to growing in Memphis have landed in the park; more than 50 UofM students have been hired by these companies in the 18 months since it was launched; and more than 20 faculty have engaged with companies in the park.

Our third case study is focused on outward economic development that accelerates the capacity of technology transfer at universities. Many universities have strong intellectual property that never becomes commercially viable because the steps required to take the science to market are more than the inventor is interested in doing. The Patents to Products (P2P) Postdoc program takes IP created by UofM faculty and hands it to recent PhD graduates who have a passion for entrepreneurship. These postdocs come from across the country to work closely with the inventing faculty member to fine-tune the product and build a company around the technology. The University invests in these companies through resources, funding and accelerator services offered in partnership with the local entrepreneurship community. In the first year of the program, six fellows were funded and their companies are now on a path that lays a foundation for deep science entrepreneurship in our city.

Between the three case studies, 500+ student jobs were created, 30+ companies were brought into the Memphis market and seven new companies were started. This evidence-driven strategy of success is at the heart of the UofM’s innovative approach that marries the best of higher education with the opportunity of industry, and reflects the goals and values of the IEP University program. Being an IEP University is not a passive honor, it is something that informs the spirit of innovation in every action on campus. This has been especially true during COVID-19, a time when we have worked closely with our partners to navigate a turbulent landscape – successfully moving all of our startups, research park members and corporate operations into a 100% remote work environment. As this was happening, we also managed to improve our research expenditures 20% and bring new talent to Memphis. While we cannot predict what will come next, we are confident that the values that inform the IEP program will be central to our approach.

This article is included as part of APLU's Innovation and Economic Prosperity Universities Designation and Awards Perspectives Blog. Read other articles around strategies, programs, and impact of APLU's IEP designees at Earn APLU’s IEP designation. Learn more at

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