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Center for Innovation earns two awards in two weeks

UND’s business incubator rewarded with funding from Small Business Administration, recognition by peers at University Economic Development Association

UND archival image.

Just as news broke that UND’s Center for Innovation was selected for a $50,000 award from the U.S. Small Business Administration, the CFI also received an Innovation Award of Excellence from the University Economic Development Association.

Amy Whitney

That makes two standout awards in two weeks for the University’s business incubator.

Through the first award – the SBA funding – the Center plans to expand its reach across North Dakota. It will do this by collaborating with the North Dakota Department of Commerce, bringing the organizations’ combined resources to more economic development centers across the state in order to reach North Dakota’s underserved entrepreneurs and innovators.

In the second award, the University Economic Development Association – at its annual conference held this year in Savannah, Ga. – recognized the Center’s “Legendary Leaders in Innovation” marketing efforts in support of UND’s University Center for Autonomous Systems.

“It’s humbling to be able to receive these awards, and we look forward to expanding our outreach and services to help innovators in North Dakota,” said Amy Whitney, CFI director. “Along with that humility, we know there’s a responsibility for us to do our work well, and we look forward to making that happen.”


Expanding reach to serve the state

Since 2014, the Small Business Association has awarded more than $15 million to fund a wide range of business accelerators and incubators in an effort to help support entrepreneurs, particularly in STEM and research-and-development, according to the SBA.

In 2021, the SBA’s Growth Accelerator Fund Competition awarded 84 winners, including UND, a total of $5.4 million.

“I’m excited to work with the Center for Innovation to increase assistance to underserved businesses, especially in our rural areas,” said SBA North Dakota District Director Al Haut. “The Center has a great track record of helping high-tech businesses start, grow and succeed, and these funds will allow the Center to focus additional help on businesses owned by women, minorities and veterans throughout our rural areas.”

Whitney said that her team’s intent is to take some of their campus-facing work to communities west of the Red River Valley. Early work will be in identifying new regional partners and performing outreach to align the CFI’s most successful programs with local resources and economic development councils and centers.

“The SBA award is going to help us take the work we do with customer discovery – through a framework for startups we know works – and apply that framework to a community-facing approach,” Whitney said. “The second piece of our work is building out our Jump Start services to new communities.”

Jump Start functions as a solution-generator for small businesses and entrepreneurs facilitated by CFI staff and volunteers. The program’s sessions focus on creative problem-solving and getting to the root of issues. The CFI plans to host monthly seminars on commercialization, including Jump Start, as a result of the award.

The award will also help the CFI expand another of its key functions in the local economy: connecting entrepreneurs and companies with an array of programs both public and private, including those offered by the Small Business Administration. The Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs are both highly competitive and encourage research-and-development with potential for commercialization.

“Our Department of Commerce funding this year, includes support for New American and Native American business owners as well, and we look forward to creating relationships with a diverse set of organizations that support these communities,” Whitney said.


Recognition for work well done

Last week in Savannah, Whitney and Renee Shelton, a commercialization specialist at the CFI, spoke to a crowd of peers about the CFI’s work with a five-year U.S.  Economic Development Administration grant that launched UND’s University Center for Autonomous Systems.

Starting in October 2018, some $100,000 in funding was awarded to the CFI to springboard UAS commercialization efforts at UND and in Grand Forks.

The grant helped CFI bring a number of UAS and autonomous technology companies to the region as tenants, create dozens of jobs and internships and advise those companies as they raised more than $12 million in total, Shelton said. All of these efforts have helped grow North Dakota’s thriving UAS and autonomous systems industry.

The Innovation Award of Excellence presented by the University Economic Development Association recognized the CFI’s innovative approach to telling its story and building awareness of the region’s UAS assets.

Renee Shelton

The Center’s program, called “Legendary Leaders in Innovation,” includes an interactive communication platform that Shelton and a team of UND student interns have worked on since the Center for Autonomous Systems’ creation.

“UND is known for its ‘Leaders in Action’ and North Dakota is ‘legendary,’ so it made a lot of sense for us to brand the effort this way,” said Shelton, who came to the CFI around the time the grant was awarded. “After taking time to listen and learn from our partners.

“We decided to heavily invest in a marketing and communication platform to best showcase how our region is second to none when it comes to this industry.”

Through an integrated marketing strategy, involving traditional marketing as well as elements such as a physical presence at national conferences, “Legendary Leaders in Innovation” quickly developed into a strong brand for businesses looking to either get started or expand their reach into the unmanned and autonomous space.

The “Why North Dakota?” webinar they developed in partnership with the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and has successfully showcased the bustling activity and broad collaborations of North Dakota’s UAS industry, Shelton remarked.

The platform keeps people engaged,” she said. “And the CFI brings the UAS ecosystem and entrepreneurs to the table because collaboration is our region’s value proposition.”

“After companies visit North Dakota, they are blown away by the entrepreneurial ecosystem, by UND’s research leadership and by everyone’s willingness to collaborate.”

In receiving the award, UND edged out finalists from James Madison University and the University of Hawaii, which Shelton found particularly humbling, noting the “astounding caliber” of UND’s peers.

“The Innovation award is exciting for the CFI because it recognizes the unique approach we took to telling our region’s story and celebrates the powerful impact of collaboration with our ecosystem partners,” Whitney said.