Starting from Square One

CHRISTIE NEO / AGGIE

Chancellor May takes first steps in creating tech hub for UC Davis

To kick off 2018, Chancellor Gary May welcomed the UC Davis community back with an email that listed some novel initiatives he had in store for the new year. One of these initiatives was to create a new technology and innovation hub called Aggie Square in Sacramento for UC Davis undergraduates.

“Aggie Square is an initiative to develop what I would call a live, learn, work, play innovation ecosystem that partners UC Davis with the City of Sacramento,” May said. “[It has] the purpose of innovating, taking our research from the laboratory to the marketplace and having our students have opportunities for internships, to do research, to start companies — and having the corporate partners be involved in hiring students of course.”

This idea is not entirely novel in its origin, however. It has been inspired by similar initiatives such as Technology Square at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

“So when I was at Georgia Tech […] in the early 2000’s we had a similar initiative which was called Technology Square,” May said. “They acquired some property that was not a part of the original University land, in an area that was very undeveloped — [someone] could have bought any service or substance you like in this area.”

The success of Technology Square has skyrocketed in recent years, with prominent companies like Mercedes-Benz moving to Atlanta, Georgia and transforming the local economy. The Aggie Square initiative was proposed with these same goals in mind. Sacramento could diversify its economy and add many more dimensions beyond its role as California’s capital city.

“The city and the region is looking to grow,” said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, a UC Davis alumnus. “Our partnership [with UC Davis] will not only be a great thing for the University because it will connect the university to this aspiration of a growing region, but it will be great for the city and the region because we should take advantage of one of the leading universities in the country.”

Not only is Aggie Square meant to expand the region’s economy, but it’s also meant to serve as an access point to urban culture. Ideas for the building blocks of the tech hub include creating space for innovative companies, developing affordable housing, restaurants and entertainment centers, and even hotels and shopping centers.

“The thought is that young people — not all — but many young people want to be in urban environments, have a chance to socialize with each other,” May said. “And [also] have this live, learn, work, play [environment], this small geographic area. You can think of adding to that retail outlets and opportunities for the arts, and all those sorts of things in a walkable area.”

Mark Romney, the director of Research Development and Industry Alliances at UC Davis Health, is part of a working group established by May. He is working to help scout out potential academic programs along with research and translational activities to bring to Aggie Square. He is also working to identify other logistical needs for the facility, such as locations, business partnerships and transportation necessities.

“Everything I’m working on has the goal of bringing Aggie Square to life,” Romney said. “What began as a UC Davis Health initiative to build a two-million square-foot research park on the Sacramento Campus to meet the increasing needs of industry and potential partners has blossomed into Aggie Square. Thanks to the vision of Chancellor May, Aggie Square is becoming more than just a health system project near UC Davis Medical Center. It could involve every school and college on the Davis campus, including university training programs and the arts.”

To realize the fruition of this vision, May emphasized the importance of the undergraduate experience — Aggie Square will be most successful when that population of students gets on board with the idea of living in this type of urban environment and having access to possible internships and mentorships.

In addition, Mayor Steinberg sees Aggie Square as a viable opportunity to retain UC Davis graduates in the Sacramento area.

“The idea though, for me, is to create pathways for our UC Davis students to be able to make their lives in Sacramento,” Steinberg said. “Too many grads from UCD leave the area and we want to keep [them] in this area, and to do that we need more high wage job opportunities for Davis graduates. It’s also about a synergy [and giving] students as many real world employment experiences as possible even before they graduate.”

As part of the early stages of the initiative process, May and Steinberg have formed a bilateral working group made up of people from UC Davis and the mayor’s office. The committee has been tasked with three main goals: location, funding and transportation.

The first step is to find the best location for this hub, and then comes the challenge of transportation between the two cities. Ideas have rolled around about sustainable modes of transportation like a light rail, electric shuttles or autonomous vehicles, but nothing has been decided upon. May suspects the biggest challenge to this initiative will be the financing aspect, which will most likely be made up of public and private funds.

The first deadline for the working group is April 1, when a report with potential possibilities and recommendations will be submitted. What will follow will be an effort to gather student input.

“When we get to the point where we’re making decisions, we need the faculty Senate, we need student input, we need business input,” May said. “It makes no sense for me to say ‘charge’ and go by myself if nobody wants to go with me.”

The idea overall has been gaining a lot of traction, and the team is looking forward to involving the undergraduates that the initiative is being created for by seeking their input and feedback once the preliminary reports are established.

Last year, I might have said we were building a ‘health-focused’ academic hub,” Romney said. “Today, the opportunities and potential envisioned by Aggie Square are only limited by the breadth of UC Davis academics. In other words, it’s limitless!”

May and Steinberg reflected a similar attitude of excitement toward the milestone, and want to bring it to life as soon as possible.

Chancellor May and I have both sent the same message, which is we want this to happen and we want this to happen as quickly as possible,” Steinberg said. “We want to deliver something in calendar year 2018.”

 

Written by: Sahiti Vemula and Marlys Jeane — features@theaggie.org

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