University of Arizona Center for Innovation building up startups in southern Arizona

For 16 years, University of Arizona’s technology business incubator, the Arizona Center for Innovation, has been responsible for helping to produce and promote more than 100 tech-focused startups at the UA Tech Park, propping up everything from aerospace to cybersecurity endeavors.

Now, the business starter is stepping out with a new name and a new plan to expand its overall reach. Now dubbed the University of Arizona Center for Innovation (UACI), the incubator is spreading its physical footprint by setting up regional outposts throughout southern Arizona. From Oro Valley to Sahuarita, Yuma to Sierra Vista, UACI is laying the groundwork for the future of tech and business in the state.

The Greater Phoenix area has seen exponential growth in business expansion as well as technology startups in recent years. A Forrester Research report ranked Arizona as the 13th best tech talent hot spot in the nation in 2018 as the tech industry has helped to boost the state economy, creating thousands of new jobs with high wages. The capital city gets a lot of attention when it comes to tech and business growth. But now Tucson is making efforts to stand apart as its own hub.

The UACI will open up its first extended outpost in Oro Valley (Oro Valley Innovation Labs) next month as a life sciences incubator.

Under the direction of Carol Stewart, who was named VP of Tech Parks Arizona in January, and Eric Smith, executive director of UACI, the tech endeavor not only rebranded but also brought in new leadership. Smith, a graduate of the McGuire Center for Entrepreneurship at UofA has experience in the business world as the owner of a local entertainment events company, and tech experience with a stint at technology development firm Aztera LLC, which he joined in 2013.

UACI has seen 120 companies go through its incubator since its inception in 2003. And while the incubator is connected to the university, only about one-third of the companies borne out of it are from faculty and/or students of the UA.

“Tucson has always had a lot of startups in the technology space. It just wasn’t well-known outside of the region until recently. Many of these startups are spinouts of The University of Arizona’s (UA) massive research enterprise,” said Steve Zylstra, president of the Arizona Tech Council. “UA’s Tech Launch Arizona and Center for Innovation, as well as Startup Tucson and Tucson Founder Institute, have all contributed to this growth.”

This highlights the interest that the UA, and Tucson as a whole, are garnering from other parts of the state and country. The UACI is planning to run with that interest with its planned hubs in Oro Valley, Vail, and Sahuarita, before it continues west with spots in Yuma. In Sahuarita, the University of Arizona ran an eight-week entrepreneurial program that saw seven startups receive funding from Freeport McMoran Inc.

“I think it makes a statement about the exciting innovation ecosystem that continues to grow in Tucson. Incubators like the Center for Innovation will continue to produce companies that make noise—the positive kind—on a regional and national scale, which will bring more investment and talent to the area,” said Zylstra.

When it comes to its decision to expand to places like Yuma and Sierra Vista instead of Phoenix, the UACI is looking to take advantage of the region’s connection to defense technology as well as its connection to agriculture, two industries that are seeing major disruptions due to advances in technology.

“The resources to grow already exist in Southern Arizona, so they can continue to thrive in this area rather than needing to move away,” Zylstra said. “The most robust angel network called the Desert Angels has been based in Tucson seemingly forever and is usually one of the top 10 angel investor groups in the U.S. Phoenix can’t even say that. Overall, announcements like this will continue to drive valuable eyes to the area and provide Southern Arizona’s startup and technology ecosystem with the exposure they deserve.”

Nick Esquer

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