The Chamber View: Research and ‘Development’

Scott Sternberg

Scott J. Sternberg
Executive Director, Boulder Economic Council

In preparation for this month’s article, I thought I would conduct a small experiment. I gave ChatGPT the task — “Define R&D.” Within a millisecond or two, it offered the following:

“R&D stands for Research and Development. It refers to the activities undertaken by organizations or individuals to innovate, develop, and improve products, services, or processes. R&D involves scientific and technical research, experimentation, and analysis aimed at discovering new knowledge or creating advancements that can lead to practical applications or improvements in various fields. It is an essential component of fostering innovation, driving technological progress, and staying competitive in many industries.”

Wow, pretty good! The response did, however, remind me of an observation I’ve made over the course of my career: When speaking about R&D, the emphasis is often more heavily weighted towards the “R” than the “D”. Thus is the opening for a more interpretive discussion on the importance of development.

There is no question that the research community here in Boulder is strong, world class in fact. The federal labs (NOAA, NCAR, NIST, etc.) contribute over $1 billion in economic impact. Additionally, per a recent article in this publication, the University of Colorado Boulder received
$658 million in research funding during the last fiscal year and is on track to reach its strategic plan goal of $800 million in 2026.

I recently had an opportunity to tour both the BioFrontiers and JILA laboratories on the CU Boulder campus. The level of intellect, creativity, and drive, not to mention the Nobel prize winning pride, surrounding these facilities is astounding. As an example, some of the “coolest” photonics research in the world is being done in the basement of one of the tallest buildings on campus. Indeed, research is alive in Boulder.

But what about the D? Development typically refers to “…testing, and refining ideas to bring about novel or enhanced products, services, or technologies.” Yes, another ChatGPT reference. However, to maintain a healthy R&D ecosystem, economic development, workforce
development and commercial real estate development are equally important Ds.

Here at the Boulder Economic Council (BEC), we work hard on the economic D. Recent examples include support for both the EDA Build Back Better and Tech Hubs grant applications, engagement in the recent NSF Engines proposals and advocacy for an increase in Advanced Industry Accelerator funds at the state level. Without getting into the substantive specifics for each of these initiatives, all told they could infuse billions of new research investment dollars into our state.

Aside from funding, Boulder would not sustain such a high level of research without a technologically capable workforce. Thus, it is imperative that we continue to nurture that deep workforce talent through STEM pathways. That is why the Boulder Chamber works closely with our education institutional partners on training to ensure that there is a healthy pipeline of skilled and interested students entering research-centric companies and fields.

Lastly, R&D has to happen somewhere. Any university will tell you that lab space is at a premium, but never more so in Boulder as we absorb such high degrees of new government and private sector research funding. Recently, the BEC has been actively engaged with VC investors, commercial property owners and brokers to create appropriate shared spaces expressly designed for the research-to-development transition. These facilities, known as incubators, accelerators, hatch-spaces, etc., play an important role when converting a scientific breakthrough into a viable product that benefits society.

In a mature and evolving R&D community such as Boulder, an extensive network of support is required to ensure that core research activities remain healthy. A focus on development, in the broadest of terms, is essential to guarantee that the R&D equation remains balanced. My Boulder Chamber colleagues and I are excited to lead in that area. I’m also excited to see if this description of the “D” in R&D leads to a slightly modified ChatGPT response when the next person asks: “Define R&D.”

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