UNM Rainforest Innovations’ CEO & Chief Economic Development Officer Elizabeth Kuuttila was recently featured in a one-on-one on the New Mexico Inno website talking about her efforts to build an innovation ecosystem and drive forward economic development in the state.
See Meagan Nichols’ June 15 article reposted below and on the New Mexico Inno Website here: https://www.bizjournals.com/albuquerque/inno/stories/news/2022/06/15/unm-rainforest-innovations-elizabeth-kuuttila.html
Building New Mexico’s tech ecosystem: One-on-one with Elizabeth Kuuttila of UNM Rainforest Innovations
By Meagan Nichols
June 15, 2022
For 19 years, Elizabeth “Lisa” Kuuttila has led UNM Rainforest Innovations.
As the CEO and chief economic development officer, Kuuttila and her team help to support the commercialization of various technologies at the University of New Mexico. Essentially, their job is to build the innovation ecosystem in the state. They do this by getting companies off the ground, managing the economic development efforts on behalf of the university and, more recently, they’ve added a corporate engagement focus.
Albuquerque Business First recently checked in with Kuuttila to talk about the work she and her team are doing.
The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Albuquerque Business First: In your almost 20 years, what are the biggest changes you’ve noticed in that time as it pertains to the local tech ecosystem in New Mexico?
Lisa Kuuttila: I’m really excited about that because we have seen such a growth in the entrepreneurial ecosystem in that timeframe. I feel like it is all of us working together towards this common goal. But New Mexico has specific strengths that other states that I’ve worked in don’t have. For example, we are a place [where] people want to live. It’s much easier to find talented, experienced entrepreneurs to lead companies because they maybe have a second home in Santa Fe. Maybe they’re already here and they’ve done one deal or more and they’re looking for their next project. Or, if they’re willing to move here because they just see the opportunities. … We just see this blossoming of entrepreneurial activity. Main street kinds of businesses, high-tech businesses and then all of those incubation and accelerator programs and funding sources that didn’t exist when I arrived in 2003.
What is one of the things you’re working on right now that you’re the most excited about? It’s hard to pick one. I’ll mention a new thing that we’re working on, perhaps, and that’s a new grant that we received from EDA (Economic Development Administration). It’s called the Tribal Entrepreneurship Program. For about four years now, we’ve been working statewide to provide support to entrepreneurs, first at our branch campuses of UNM. So that would be Los Alamos, Taos, Gallup and Valencia County. But we knew we were missing a piece. We weren’t really reaching into our tribal communities, our Pueblos and the Navajo Nation as well as we wanted to be. This new grant is going to give us the opportunity to work with other partner organizations. Two of our board members, Sandra Begay, who’s our board chair, member of the Navajo Nation and (former) UNM Regent and Rich Luarkie who was the governor of the Laguna Pueblo and now is with Tamaya Ventures … they’re both board members that are advising us. We really want to help connect, through liaisons that we’re hiring, entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs to resources.
We’ve talked about the things that have gotten better and the opportunities. What are some of the hurdles you face? We actually started a project last summer with Victor Hwang. He’s the author of “The Rainforest” book (“The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley”), and now he has a company called Right to Start. And Right to Start is just exactly what you asked the question about identifying barriers and ways to overcome them. The city of Albuquerque and Rainforest Innovations are partners with Right to Start … to identify those barriers. It will culminate in a summit this fall, another business and economic summit around Right to Start. We’re going to be making some recommendations to the Legislature about simple things that could be done. For example, the first-year licensing fee is a barrier for people. Even paying $100 for a licensing fee can be a barrier. That’s just a little example. A lot of these don’t really cost a lot of money to do, but they could be very important to improving our entrepreneurial ecosystem.
In your almost 20 years with the organization, what are you the most proud of? Probably the development of so many startup companies based on UNM technology. I think we’ve had over 150 now and about half of them still in business, about 60 here in New Mexico.