Could this UC Davis innovation do for Sacramento what it did for Atlanta’s economy?

UC Davis Chancellor Gary May speaks during a press event at UC Davis on Tuesday, August 1, 2017.
UC Davis Chancellor Gary May speaks during a press event at UC Davis on Tuesday, August 1, 2017. rbenton@sacbee.com

Sacramento and Davis are only about 15 miles from each other, but the distance might as well be 50 miles, psychologically.

The town-gown partnership that ought to exist between California’s capital and UC Davis perpetually founders in ways that it simply shouldn’t. Arizona State University in Tempe is embedded in Phoenix’s economy, though 10 miles separate those two cities. No business considering a Los Angeles location would imagine that city’s sprawling assets don’t include the academic powerhouse 16 miles west of City Hall known as UCLA.

So it makes sense that UC Davis Chancellor Gary S. May and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg are redoubling past efforts to expand the university’s presence in the city, and, more importantly, to leverage UC Davis’ intellectual capital in ways that will diversify the regional economy.

Last week, with little fanfare, the two announced a working group to rough out a technology and innovation campus/research park modeled on the one May helped shepherd when he was at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. The research hub, known as Tech Square, has used a pro-business mindset and the proximity to the university’s engineering talent to draw more than a dozen Fortune 500 companies and hundreds of tech startups to that city.

The concept has worked in other cities as well, from Pittsburgh to Madison, Wis. Cities need jobs. Companies need research and development infrastructure and an educated work force. University researchers need places to scale and market their innovations.

Theoretically, it could work here. UC Davis’ medical school, school of nursing and medical center have been game changers in Oak Park; with the right infrastructure, the surrounding area might also attract, say, biomedical companies seeking to leverage university research.

Davis’ renowned agriculture and veterinary schools provide powerful research that has helped transform farming and will continue to do so. Sacramento hopes to get in on the coming autonomous vehicle boom and has room for research parks and industrial spaces; UC Davis has a top engineering school and not enough room in the surrounding community for growing startups.

This isn’t to say there aren’t hurdles. Transit is a big one. The commute between Sacramento and Davis is just long enough to feel like a hassle. It is essential that the region upgrade transportation between the two cities. Yolo Bus could start by adding more express lines.

Picking a site could also be a quandary. UC Davis Medical Center is an obvious draw for research-oriented business, but there’s also the downtown railyard, and the city has an obligation to find a new use for the old Sleep Train Arena in Natomas.

The temptation might be to nurture several research parks, to leverage a range of UC Davis expertise. But one reason these ventures have worked elsewhere is that, by congregating in one spot, startups, researchers and bigger businesses also generate business for each other.

And the mutual benefit has to be made apparent. May’s predecessor as chancellor, Linda P.B. Katehi, spoke ambitiously during her tenure of creating a World Food Center in Sacramento, and perhaps of building a downtown satellite campus. Those ideas gained little traction, partly because the economy was still skittish, but also partly part because businesses weren’t sure what was immediately in it for them, beyond a potential tenant.

May’s approach seems more tightly focused. Certainly the timeline is firmer: Initial reports have an April 1 deadline. We await the recommendations for “Aggie Square,” as May has informally dubbed the project.

Though maybe the working group might want to work on that name.

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