Editorial: UMass Heating Up as an Economic Engine

There are many ways to measure the success of a college or university, everything from those rankings in USA Today — although we’ve always considered them very unscientific — to the number of Nobel Prize winners on the faculty; from enrollment figures to championships earned on the gridiron or basketball court.

And then, there are ways that are far more difficult to measure, such as a school’s ability to graduate students who are ‘workforce-ready,’ in whatever manner that phrase is put to use. And, in some ways, that’s the most important yardstick.

But the state’s university system is gaining significant ground in an area that is all-too-often overlooked, even though it shouldn’t be. And that’s the realm of innovation, as measured by the number of patents a school is awarded, the amount of licensing income earned, and the size of the research portfolio.

According to recent statistics released by the university, UMass moving up the ranks nationally and internationally in those categories, and while the net results from such movement may be hard to see with the naked eye, the Commonwealth certainly stands to benefit in the years and decades to come.

Among the highlights of the recent report:

• The five-campus university system was awarded a record 65 patents in FY 2015, which ended June 30;
• The school ranked 40th nationally and 53rd worldwide among universities awarded U.S. patents in calendar year 2014;
• UMass earned $34 million in licensing income from commercialization of its patented faculty investions in 2015, a $3 million increase from FY ’14, and the ninth consecutive year that licensing income topped $30 million;
• FY ’14 licensing income of $31 million placed UMass 14th in the nation among all universities;
• The UMass system now ranks in the top 40 nationally in research expenditures and is one of three universities in Massachusetts with research portfolios in excess of $600 million, along with Harvard and MIT; and
• UMass has earned more than $350 million from technology transfer over the past 20 years.

What do all these numbers and rankings mean? Using a little PR speak, the university’s recently named president, Marty Meehan, said, “the quest to create and transmit knowledge is at the core of our mission as a research university — and research and innovation also plays a critical role for our state and will determine our fortunes as we compete in the global economy.”

Roughly translated, this means that, in addition to educating students and readying them for the workforce, an institution such as UMass must also serve as an economic engine. It does so in several ways, from the thousands of people it employs to participation in what amount to economic-development initiatives, such as the creation of the UMass Center at Springfield, which opened a year ago.

But perhaps the most important way is through innovation that can spark new businesses, new economic clusters, and all-important jobs. It’s nearly impossible to say what 65 patents, $34 million in licensing income, and a $600 million research portfolio translates into when it comes to jobs and economic development. But suffice it to say that it means progress, and the university seems committed to creating more of it.

In short, the UMass system is certainly heating up as an economic engine, and it appears poised to deliver plenty of horsepower.