Few institutions can do as much to spark discoveries that change lives and improve our world as public universities. Time and time again, ideas that start as basic inquiries turn into new knowledge that can influence the human condition. Our faculty and graduate students at the University of Hawai‘i have been major players in this innovation process for years.

We not only want to provide a transformational education for our students, but we want to transform the way the University of Hawai‘i does business here in the state of Hawai‘i.

UH faculty generated more than $450 million in outside funding during the 2009-2010 academic year. More than 70 percent of that is in jobs. Our university can and must support a multi-billion dollar industry for Hawai‘i in research, spin-offs and related services that supports employment for Hawai‘i’s citizens and fuels the state’s economy.

One of the new economic drivers for Hawai‘i is, literally, rocket science. UH aims to become the only university in the world with dedicated rocket launch capability. The Hawai‘i Space Flight Laboratory at UH Mānoa is involved “from soup to nuts” in developing and testing spacecraft and instrumentation, providing launch and mission support and handling satellite data download and analysis.

Our Institute for Astronomy is one of the largest university astronomy programs in the world. UH astronomers take us on an exciting journey of astronomical discovery with benefits that extend far beyond scientific results.

The current telescopes on Mauna Kea represent a capital investment of close to $1 billion and the observatories provide over 500 quality jobs in a clean high-tech industry. Additionally, spin-off companies related to imaging devices for telescopes at Mauna Kea and Haleakala not only contribute to the state’s economy, but inspire our children who realize high technology jobs are available in the islands.

The Hawai‘i Natural Energy Institute works to develop renewable energy resources and sustainable technologies to reduce Hawai‘i’s dependence on fossil fuels, a mandate that must be met if the state is to survive.

With the natural resources available to us – wind, sun, ocean and volcanoes – Hawai‘i can reduce its dependence and become a leader for the country and the Asia Pacific region not just in developing renewable energy technologies but also in implementing them.

Beyond our expanding research efforts in these areas, we are providing our students with practical training while reducing our own energy footprint. Our community college campuses on Kaua‘i and Maui have installed photovoltaic arrays that provide the benefits of immediately reducing their energy costs while training the future workforce in this emerging field.

Our goal is to create a 21st-century capacity for workforce development, innovation and technology exchange that is necessary to achieve a high-value economy in Hawai‘i.

To help address the need to grow and diversify our economy, I appointed an Advisory Council on Hawai‘i Innovation and Technology Advancement. This group of distinguished local and national experts from academia and industry have helped us chart a new course for UH and how it may better serve the citizenry of Hawai‘i.

Last month, the university co-hosted a symposium on research and innovation with the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. More than 340 national, local and community leaders attended the conference, including Senators Inouye and Akaka, Congresswomen Hanabusa and Hirono, Gov. Abercrombie and Lt. Gov. Schatz, who all presented remarks. Internationally respected leaders shared their insights and expertise, and UH faculty, members of the private sector, and representatives of state and federal agencies all participated in the symposium discussions.

At the symposium, I presented the Advisory Council’s draft report of recommendations for the university to create an innovation economy for the state. The four recommendations include:

  • identify research as an industry in Hawai‘i, particularly in special opportunity areas where Hawai‘i has a significant strategic advantage;
  • establish HiTEx, the Hawai‘i Innovation Technology Exchange Institute, to help accelerate commercialization of university innovations;
  • identify key areas to capitalize on commercialization opportunities for Hawai‘i, including security and sustainability in the areas of energy and agriculture, data analytics and Asian-Pacific health; and
  • encourage collaboration by integrating entrepreneurship into all levels of the university’s curriculum.

UH is a $500 million industry right now and we expect to be at $1 billion in the next decade. To support this effort, the council concluded that a new innovation model is needed to provide public and private collaboration around translational research and offering assistance to start-ups from proof of concept centers and innovation centers.

We also want to develop a culture of entrepreneurialism and ensure that every student is exposed to it. We’re not just talking about the ideas that might transform business – the next Google or Facebook. We’re also talking about teaching people how to innovate in businesses that are already here and how to make them more successful.

Hawai‘i has the potential to serve as an example for the rest of the country, and the University of Hawai‘i is the catalyst to make this happen. We are educating today’s students and tomorrow’s workforce. We can create a new economy and jobs for the future.

It will take investment. It will take partnerships. It will take all of us working together. Now is the time to do what we know we need to do.