University Economic Development Association

George Ward—Executive Director for Coldstream Research Campus and Real Estate at University of Kentucky, and UEDA Membership and Marketing Committee member—recently talked with Renee Shelton, Project Manager and Entrepreneur Coach at the University of North Dakota’s Center for Innovation, category leader of the 2021 UEDA Award of Excellence in the Innovation category for their Legendary Leaders of Innovation program.

Here is a transcript of the conversation, edited for length.

George Ward: I remember how excited that you and Amy were when your name got announced. Why don’t you relive that moment again for us?

Renee Shelton: It was very exciting and incredibly humbling. We certainly did not anticipate winning. We loved that we were nominated. We love the program that we’ve put together here at the Center for Innovation. We enjoyed going to the conference, meeting all the other participants and learning about all of the great things they’re doing in their communities. And if you had seen what the University of Hawaii and James Madison University were doing, they were changing lives. They were saving lives. So we didn’t feel that our marketing efforts would fall into that category. So we were incredibly humbled. It was so fun to get to know them. We’re still connected with them and still communicating back and forth. That to me is the real value of us having gone to the conference and participated in the awards.

George: Can you give us a short elevator pitch on your program?

Renee: I would love to. We received an EDA grant to establish a University Center for Autonomous Systems Innovation. Our strategy was to promote our ability to lead autonomous systems innovation in what we consider a very legendary state regarding innovation. What we built was a platform called Legendary Leaders in Innovation. The platform takes a really unique approach to economic development challenges in North Dakota.

The Center funding gave us an opportunity. Something that has been evolving here for a very long time is autonomous systems and un-crewed aircraft systems—drones. That technology is exploding here, and we really saw that this was a place that we could attract people to because of the ecosystem that we have here. And I will tell you, North Dakota—I’m not from here, been here a couple of years—they are the nicest, kindest people.

“Un-crewed aircraft” is really a new term. Everyone is adopting it slowly but surely. It used to be “unmanned.” And we have a lot of great women pilots here. We are now “un-crewed.”

Our goal was to just further diversify the economy here and then foster and leverage the statewide collaboration.

George: Who are you collaborating with?

Renee: I’d say it takes more than a village to do what we’re doing. We’re collaborating with everyone in the state and it’s really exciting. We’re really building the awareness of what’s going on because the story hasn’t been told. We’re enhancing this robust ecosystem that exists and getting lots of people involved in supporting startups and supporting new innovation in this area. We encourage business expansion, and we’d done quite well with that. We’re bringing in new companies or expanding companies, new offices here in this sector, in this industry. We focus on helping them develop a highly skilled workforce through meaningful internships.

We are graduating some of the best in this market and in this sector. We have companies that have come here like Northrop Grumman, and General Atomics, and they’re hiring the best and the brightest. From a retention standpoint and the workforce… we’re helping these young kids stay here and not go looking anywhere else for jobs.

George: Are you able to supply a large enough workforce for the demands? Is the program big enough?

Renee: Not our program alone. It’s that ecosystem—I think we have really successful results, and it is only because of collaboration. We have a state that has heavily invested in UAS and autonomous systems. All of these people, the economic development people—our startups, our existing businesses, our UAS test site, our air force bases—all of these people, especially the universities (University of North Dakota and North Dakota State University, primarily, but we have nine other universities within a university system called the North Dakota State University System) play a role in helping us. When we bring someone to a site visit here, we’re able to bring all these people to the table, and they’re all there saying, “how can I help you make your business successful here?”

George: What about non-university partners?

Renee: The Economic Development Administration is a great partner. Through the other University Centers we learned “what does best in class look like,” and we did site visits—University of Kansas, Kansas State University, and University of Missouri Kansas City. These are wonderful partners, collaborators. “Hey, I already built this program. Let me give it to you if you are interested in it,” and vice versa. They just provided us a great deal of insight.

George: What have been some of the factors leading to your success?

Renee: To date our metrics have been really good by using this marketing communication platform. We encourage site visits. We bring people here. We can pick up the phone and say, “we should introduce you to this person…” Site visits have been really important.

We’ve won a lot of business for the coaching. We have coaching tools and we assist businesses with finding market fit and customer validation. Are they going after the right customer in the right market? And coaching for business innovation and problem solving.

We have a lot of other tools. We have Jumpstart, which is like an innovation studio. We have WK online—go to market tools, from ideation to being in the market. Business model canvas is another, and we we’re part of an i-Corps program with the University of Minnesota and we’re able to put people through that.

George: Is there anything that you wish that you would have done a little differently, or if you were coaching another university on doing a program like yours, what would you tell them?

Renee: One of the things that was a challenge in the beginning when you started to say “how can we work together to do a better job…” people thinking about being competitive versus being collaborative. So it was important to make clear that this was for the good of all, and it was going to take everyone involved right down to the littlest organization, public or private, to the largest.

The other thing I’d highly recommend is getting involved in a network. I became president of AUVSI’s Great Plains Chapter. It’s an organization around autonomous systems and un-crewed aircraft. I got very involved in that, so I could quickly learn and come up speed. It’s an international organization, it’s 60,000 members strong so bringing that into the fold of what we were doing in our program was really helpful.

George: You’re a relatively new member of UEDA. What are some of the key takeaways from the UEDA Annual Summit in Savannah?

Renee: Getting to meet people like you! We had a great time getting to meet people and we had lots of fun conversations. I come from consulting in the corporate world and we always did a lot in strategic planning and one of my sayings is “The value is not in the strategic plan that you end with and put a staple in. The value is in the process.” It was unbelievable to win this award—unexpected and humbling. But the real value was participating in this process. Getting to meet people and the board, getting to know all the people who are involved in it, all of our peers, and getting to learn what they’re doing.

Everyone’s doing very creative work, very thoughtful work. That was what was most rewarding about going to the conference and participating in the award process.