By Emerson Lynn
The University of Vermont and Green Mountain Power agreed last week to explore the power of collaboration. If properly executed, it could be a model that moves Vermont into a leadership position on a variety of fronts, and one that could add measurably to our prosperity.
Tom Sullivan, president of UVM, and Mary Powell, CEO of Green Mountain Power, signed a memorandum of understanding that blends the resources of both to promote a wide-ranging energy innovation collaboration. UVM would help supply the intellectual capital – teachers and students – and GMP would provide the environment that encourages students to learn more about energy innovation and about future job possibilities.
Part of the appeal is specific. The deal gives UVM a presence at GMP’s Energy Innovation Center in Rutland. GMP, in turn, gets access to students and faculty who have a sophisticated understanding of how systems work, and how utilities can better manage their grids. It’s a collaborative environment that should play to the advantage of both.
That’s reason enough to applaud the effort.
But it’s only part of the picture
This should be just the beginning. The University of Vermont is the state’s academic research engine, and it pumps over a billion dollars into the state’s economy. As a utility, GMP reaches into every corner of the state and has control of almost three-quarters of the market. Together, they represent a public-private synergy that could produce benefits far beyond what each could do on its own.
As Ms. Powell describes it, the partnership is akin to a flywheel. “Once you get that spinning, it just fosters more and more centers of excellence around it. This puts us right up front with that transformation.”
This is why Mr. Sullivan and Ms. Powell describe the overall collaboration as something that could contribute heavily to the state’s prosperity.
Mr. Sullivan also noted that this partnership is the first of its kind under his leadership, and he described it as a “game-changer.”
“…It gets right to economic development in the State of Vermont. Since 1865, part of our mission has been applied research emphasis as well as economic development.” He also made it clear the university is open to other such public-private partnerships.
It should be. This potential was made ripe in 2009 when his predecessor – Dan Fogel – established the school’s Spires of Excellence, now termed its Transdisciplinary Research Initiatives. One of them – complex systems – ties neatly to the partnership with GMP. The other two – Food Systems, and Neuroscience, Behavior and Health – have their obvious ties to the private sector world.
It’s this established connection between the private sector and the public sector that creates a synergy that helps sustain both.
Nowhere is that more important than in Vermont.
We are losing population, and the demographic most important to the state is the 18-35 cohort seeking its opportunities elsewhere. The most effective way to change course is to create job opportunities here, opportunities that connect with our youth, the young professionals who will staff tomorrow’s workplace.
The world of energy innovation creates that appeal. If the partnership between GMP and UVM is properly managed, it will attract other energy-related businesses, and that’s how Vermont creates more jobs, and raises the standard of living among those already here.
It also helps UVM. Universities are under considerable pressure to create sustainable businesses; creating a bridge between academia and the private sector helps strengthen that model.
But to succeed requires more than the signing of a memorandum. There needs to be some money behind it. The partnership between the school and GMP should be a budget item that UVM can easily defend. And it should be an effort that both UVM and GMP brand as a collaborative that defines Vermont as a place where cutting edge research and innovation is standard practice.
Tell the world.
This same potential exists with food systems and the countless private sector enterprises that are focused on a food production system the planet can sustain.
The same potential exists with IBM and the large data needs involving health or weather, or a variety of other pursuits.
But it’s Mr. Sullivan and UVM that need to take the next step. They are the ones who best understand their intellectual resources and how they could be paired with private sector opportunities. Perhaps with the public relations muscle of GMP and last week’s announcement, it can be made clear that such partnerships are precisely what Vermonters would like to see.
Emerson Lynn is co-publisher of The Essex Reporter and The Colchester Sun. He is the publisher of the St. Albans Messenger.