Bolstering the Economy Mizzou Style
See where we’re headed and get to know the Silicon Valley serial entrepreneur behind MU’s efforts
Story by: Laura Roloff and MU journalism student Allyson Imhoff
Several years ago, the Tripp Umbach firm estimated the influence UM System has on Missouri’s economic vitality. Their report looked at factors like university employment, spending and government revenues. But what do economic development staff members in MU’s Office of Research actually DO?
“Most people think economic development is an office in Jesse Hall that doesn’t impact them,” said Bill Turpin, who joined MU in 2018 as associate vice chancellor for economic development. “The fact is, we are running entrepreneurial programs for students, faculty and staff; recruiting industry partners to sponsor research and license the rights to MU innovations; and providing business development expertise and resources.”
Turpin, who also is president and CEO of the Missouri Innovation Center in MU’s Life Science Business Incubator, has a pragmatic, flexible style. He and his team focus on making Mizzou a more effective economic driver for the state by collaborating across disciplines to encourage more innovation and entrepreneurship, technology advancement and industry partnerships.
In January, the MU Research Reactor signed an exclusive multi-year agreement with Advanced Accelerator Applications International, a Novartis company, to provide a key ingredient for cancer therapeutics. Turpin and other university leaders were instrumental in executing the agreement.
“The magic happens when we find industry partners with goals that align with Mizzou’s goals,” Turpin said. “MU works with companies like Novartis to bring new drugs to market, which is a long, expensive process that universities can’t afford.
The Technology Advancement Office, which Turpin oversees, evaluates and patents faculty innovations, but the university relies on entrepreneurs and industry to help translate them into products, jobs and businesses.
On average, MU researchers disclose about 100 new inventions annually. The university received $12.4 million in FY20 from companies licensing the rights to its intellectual property. Recent examples include a gene therapy to treat hearing loss, a mobile app for behavioral health researchers and a screening technology for autism.
Turpin’s office also is focused on growing industry-sponsored research, which he sees as an essential part of MU’s plan to increase research expenditures. Currently, there are 231 industry partners funding research at MU. For example, the university has multiple projects with Roche Diagnostics, including improving cancer case review efficiency using the NAVIFY® Tumor Board. Turpin thinks the NextGen Precision Health initiative will generate even more opportunities.
Supporting MU faculty and staff involved in the commercialization process is another priority for Turpin. This year, his team produced a guide for employees interested in starting a company based on Mizzou research, and they are working to better coordinate services through Lab 2 Market contacts and programs. In addition, Turpin helped win a $3.9 million grant from NIH in 2019 to establish the Midwest Biomedical Accelerator Consortium (MBArC), which provides academic researchers with funding and education to turn discoveries into products that improve health.
Most new jobs will need employees who are able to innovate and think entrepreneurially. That’s one reason Turpin also is focused on preparing students.
“A lot of young people now want to start their own business,” Turpin said. “We can help them try out their ideas while they’re here in a pretty risk-free environment with a lot of support.”
Turpin’s office established the Griggs Innovators Nexus in the MU Student Center with donor support, which also funded Entrepreneur Quest, the Idea Quest pitch competition and a new social entrepreneurship program called 4impact. This year, Turpin’s team organized inspirational virtual events for students featuring Netflix co-founder Marc Randolph and Maxine Clark, founder of Build-A-Bear Workshop.
“We need to teach students how to thrive in a culture of innovation,” Turpin said. “We want them to be able to question the status quo, propose solutions to make things better, take risks and understand that failure is part of the process.”
What Bill Turpin brings to the table
After growing up in Bowling Green, Missouri, and earning a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at Mizzou, Turpin spent more than 30 years in Texas and California in high-tech jobs and as a pioneer during the early days of the internet.
“I quit my job, and five of us started another company together [that] got merged into a company called Netscape, which is largely credited for the commercial internet boom,” Turpin said. “They had the first browsers, the first internet servers and really made the internet work.”
“I like to build new things…and that’s just, I guess, my temperament,” Turpin said.
During his career, Turpin raised millions in venture capital funds and built and invested in multiple startup companies. When he returned to his home state in 2014 to lead the Missouri Innovation Center, he brought a wealth of knowledge and an impressive network of connections in the business world that he freely shares with students, faculty and staff.
“I think a lot of people in the later stages of their career or life switch from accumulating things to giving things away,” Turpin said. “I think I made that switch when I moved back to Missouri, so I try to be thoughtful in helping other people in the ways I can.”