NSF Grant to Focus on Entrepreneurship, Workforce Resilience and Development along Colorado's Front Range
October 2, 2023
The ecosystem for entrepreneurs and innovators in the fields of emerging technologies along Colorado’s Front Range just received a major investment in the form of a new stream of federal funding and the collective brainpower of researchers from four universities.
The University of Northern Colorado was one of 50 institutions recently awarded a three-year, $400,000 Enabling Partnerships to Increase Innovation Capacity (EPIIC) grant from the National Science Foundation. The EPIIC grant, which will be executed by the Monfort College of Business, is designed to encourage minority-serving institutions, two-year institutions, primarily undergraduate institutions and other emerging research institutions to participate in and strengthen regional innovation ecosystems.
“This project has significant potential to benefit the residents in the Front Range region, many who come from underrepresented communities and who work in low-paying agricultural jobs."
— Isaac Wanasika
According to Isaac Wanasika, professor and department chair of Management at MCB and principal investigator on the project, the impact of the grant will translate into resources for local businesses in the form of technical advice, funding for scaling business and skill building; all things that promote economic and social mobility opportunities and contribute to workforce resilience in Front Range communities. In support of those outcomes, the university will use the funding to primarily focus on three goals:
- Advancing entrepreneurship education and workforce programs for UNC students and the broader Front Range community. This includes designing and delivering programs to upskill or reskill the regional workforce and advancing career-readiness in innovation and entrepreneurship in northern Colorado.
- Developing and strengthening long-term partnerships with regional stakeholders and local investors to foster economic development by advancing technology commercialization in agtech, biotech and other locally driven industries.
- Accelerating local ventures and startups by providing technical advice, funding and scaling to support regional entrepreneurship from ideation to commercial success, a key factor in innovation and workforce growth.
“This project has significant potential to benefit the residents in the Front Range region, many who come from underrepresented communities and who work in low-paying agricultural jobs," said Wanasika.
“We can help promote regional economic development and the advancement of historically marginalized communities by providing workforce development opportunities in new advanced agriculture technology sectors, developing programs that promote entrepreneurship and technology commercialization and by providing workforce training and promoting entrepreneurship among the largely Hispanic communities who work in the regional agricultural industries.”
The grant is unique in several aspects. It’s the largest grant MCB has ever received and the first time they’ve secured funding from NSF. It’s also a first for NSF as the $20 million EPIIC program just launched in December 2022 under the foundation's newly formed Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships Directorate. EPIIC is one of several initiatives the NSF has advanced within the past year in support of the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022. The bipartisan legislation was designed specifically to strengthen American manufacturing, supply chains, and national security, and invest in research and development, science and technology and the workforce.
“Smaller universities like UNC that are predominantly undergraduate or in semi-rural environments, haven’t really benefited from federal funds for economic development,” said Wanasika. “So, this is a very intentional effort to give us the capacity to create impact in the community we live in.”
As part of the award, UNC was paired with three other institutions, forming the Enabling Meaningful External Research Growth in Emergent Technologies (EMERGE) cohort. It includes UNC, Kettering University in Flint, Michigan, University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas, and Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina.
Wanasika said the cohort model broadens the network of available resources and collaboration to further enhance each region's efforts, creating opportunities for UNC to draw on the science and engineering expertise of the other institutions, while sharing MCB’s expertise in entrepreneurship. The business college has a rich history of implementing successful community impact programs in collaboration with partners such as the East Colorado Small Business Development Center, City of Greeley, Weld County, BizWest Economic Forecast symposium and its own annual Entrepreneurial Challenge (E-Challenge) for college students and Colorado-based entrepreneurs.
“Our strength in this cohort is utilizing the entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem we have already developed and the fact that we can help business startups go through the whole process of entrepreneurship – from creating ideas, to funding, to eventual commercialization of those businesses,” said Wanasika.
Work on the grant officially began Oct. 1, and will continue through Sept. 30, 2026. Some initial efforts include enlisting a research consultant to gain a better understanding of the region's workforce and hiring a community partnership development consultant, expected to be on board by January 2024, to grow both new and established community and industry relationships.
In addition to Wanasika, the team responsible for overseeing implementation of the project includes Assistant Professor of Management Maurice Harris and Associate Vice President of Research and Dean of the Graduate School, Jeri-Anne Lyons as co-principal investigators.
For more information about the EPIIC grant and UNC’s efforts to foster innovation and entrepreneurship in northern Colorado, visit MCB online at mcb.unco.edu.
— written by London Yates and Deanna Herbert