By John M. Mason Jr., vice president for research and economic development at Auburn University and president of the Auburn Research and Technology Foundation.
The state of Alabama has welcomed and benefited from new industries over the decades and now looks forward to the knowledge-based economy of tomorrow. To maximize our potential, it's incumbent that we invest in our workforce and nurture government, business and industry partnerships, especially those in sectors building upon advanced technologies and new ideas.
For many years, state and local economic development programs relied on offering tax breaks and other incentives in a sort of arms race to see who could give the most generous package. While financial incentives have their place, our future as local communities and as a state rests on enhancing investments in three economic pillars--a trained workforce, new technologies and entrepreneurship-- as the recipe for a sustained, secure and prosperous future.
Invest in our workforce
The immense ability of our state's educational institutions to provide impactful research and a workforce able to fulfill the promise of next-generation technologies is undeniable and appealing, nationally and globally. More strategically focused partnerships among four-year universities and the Alabama Community College System will ensure we can supply high-tech companies with a talented workforce.
Technical institutes offering credentialing and certificate programs in partnership with higher education represent another avenue. For example, the Auburn Research and Technology Foundation is working with the City of Auburn, Auburn University, the Alabama Community College System and commercial partners on creating technology credentialing, training and research and development in emerging manufacturing technologies, advanced computer numeric control operations and tool and die design. The goal is an advanced workforce capable of meeting the increasing technological needs of current industries in the state and others considering locating here where industry startup training is an attractive incentive.
Bringing more industry and training to all parts of Alabama will help communities move forward. An educated, highly capable workforce will propel our efforts to attract knowledge-based industries and enhance those already in the state.
Invest in knowledge-based technology
Our nation is looking for next-generation technologies in areas like sensitive cyber security, additive manufacturing, health sciences, military defense, agriculture and bioscience systems, robotics and radio frequency identification. Knowledge-based industries in these associated fields represent the type of companies that will stay in the U.S. to better protect their respective proprietary and intellectual property.
An excellent tool for recruiting industries of the future and expanding existing ones is the Alabama Science and Technology Roadmap, developed as part of Accelerate Alabama 2.0, which updates the state's strategic economic development growth plans. It identifies science and technology capabilities at Alabama universities and research institutes and matches this expertise to targeted business sectors. This will help enhance and expand Alabama's infrastructure and resources needed to ensure the state is nationally and internationally competitive.
Auburn, like many state institutions, focuses on knowledge-based technologies. We collaborate with partners such as GE Aviation, which brought high-volume additive manufacturing to its facility in the City of Auburn, and the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in Huntsville, working with our College of Veterinary Medicine and others to identify genes associated with cancer, cardiovascular diseases and obesity. On campus, our Samuel Ginn College of Engineering is tasked with helping protect the cyber security of our nation's infrastructure through the Charles D. McCrary Institute, founded through an Alabama Power Foundation donation in honor of its former CEO and an Auburn alumnus.
Invest in our entrepreneurs
Supporting an idea that seemed far-fetched a few years ago could lead to an industry of the future. A community will thrive with entrepreneurs and a collection of small, knowledge-based companies, each with 25 to 100 well-paying jobs.
An exemplary program is Alabama Launchpad, part of the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama, that promotes and rewards high-growth, innovative startup companies from across Alabama. The competition is for startups that need additional capital to launch their business as they compete for cash grants.
At Auburn we have created LAUNCH to help faculty bridge the gap between innovative research and the marketplace. One project that could impact the healthcare industry involves the production of antimicrobial wound dressings with the hope of reducing the occurrence of dangerous infections and enhancing wound healing. This spring, our Raymond J. Harbert College of Business will host its third annual Entrepreneur Summit March 30-31 featuring the Tiger Cage competition, similar to ABC's popular "Shark Tank" show, for student entrepreneurs.
Providing more opportunities at the state and local levels will help attract and empower startup companies.
Auburn and its partners work diligently to strategically position our community and state for growth in the knowledge-based economy of tomorrow. Our local partnership received accolades in a recent Wall Street Journal article spotlighting college towns and their economic resilience to overcome job losses from vanishing industries and overseas competition.
Collaboration on knowledge-based technologies among four-year universities, community colleges, government officials, local authorities and industry partners will usher in the next phase of economic growth and innovation in Alabama.
Despite her nearly 27 years of dedicated service to Auburn University, Martha Taylor didn’t see this coming.
“I was totally shocked—I mean, absolutely, totally shocked,” she said after being honored recently with the university’s Administrative/Professional Employee of the Year award.
But those who know Taylor well were not so surprised to see her receive this recognition. “I think it was well-deserved,” said Tony Ventimiglia, director of Proposal Services and Faculty Support, who has worked with Taylor for 17 years. Describing her as “determined, committed, and knowledgeable,” he added that the award highlights both Taylor’s years of service and the importance of her duties, which benefit the entire research enterprise.
John Mason, vice president for research and economic development, agreed: “We are all very pleased that Martha Taylor has been selected for this most noteworthy recognition. Martha consistently strives to provide guidance and solutions that directly assist Auburn University’s researchers, while simultaneously meeting the complex contracting requirements of external sponsors, as well as state and federal agencies.”
In her current role as assistant vice president for research, Taylor works closely with stakeholders in all areas of Auburn’s research enterprise, and she is quick to share credit for the award with others. “The team of people that are in Sponsored Programs and [Research] Compliance, that I work with closely, are amazing. They are just amazing people… And they’re as much friends as they are workers and colleagues,” Taylor said.
Initially hired as a sponsored programs database consultant in 1989, Taylor was soon promoted to a permanent position as assistant director of Sponsored Programs, followed by further leadership roles as the office’s director and, since 2004, assistant vice president for the research division.
From an office in Samford Hall, which has been Taylor’s “home base” for all of her Auburn career, she reflected on the changes and highlights of her nearly three decades on the plains. Noting that work in the sponsored programs and research compliance areas offers “something new and different every day,” Taylor explained that while people have come and gone over the years, certain aspects of the university have held steady over time.
In particular, she mentioned the consistency of Auburn’s strong research portfolio, as well as the simple beauty of campus as seen from Auburn’s signature administrative building, Samford Hall. “Samford Park is truly a park… It’s just a really special place,” she said.
Peppering the conversation with humor, Taylor went on to reveal one of her leadership secrets: “It’s a highly stressful environment… And if you cut up a little bit and play a little bit, then it relieves some of that stress, and I think that’s important.” To elaborate, she recalled one of her favorite Auburn memories, an April Fool’s prank that her staff played on her.
“I had a lot on my plate. And I got an email saying [a staff member] was going to be out that afternoon, that he had to meet with his tax accountant… Well, a few minutes later, I got a note from somebody else saying they were going to be out because they had a doctor’s appointment. And this went on throughout the whole day. When I came back from lunch, no one was around… I was so mad. I had a list of things to do. We were busy, busy, busy. How could they possibly all leave?
“And I went in the conference room, and they were all hiding in the closet, laughing… I actually thought it was a pretty good idea. It was really funny, once I calmed down.”
But all joking aside, Martha Taylor remains grateful for the opportunities that Auburn University has afforded her. “I enjoy being a part of a large organization, doing things that are helpful for people,” she said. “Auburn has given me opportunities galore to do what I wanted… in a field that I love, that I think is really interesting and really important.”
Reflecting on the positive impact of Auburn’s research and outreach projects, Taylor noted that she enjoys being a part of that work, “even if it’s just a tiny part.”
With a smile she added, “Auburn’s an amazing place.”
by JONATHAN CULLUM