Bioscience

Arizona universities use TRIF money to expand research, build facilities, launch startups

November 2, 2018

By Chris Farrington

The Technology and Research Initiative Fund makes up a small percentage of a proposition approved by Arizona voters nearly 20 years ago to benefit the state’s education system.

Yet the fund has been critical for Arizona’s three public universities in allowing them to build new cutting-edge research facilities and attract world-renowned scientists to the state, leading to an increase in research grants and other external funding, the commercialization of technology and new startups, as well as opportunities for college students.

Since its inception as part of Proposition 301, TRIF, as it’s commonly known, has raised $1 billion for Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University, and University of Arizona to be used for research in health and the biosciences and other science fields, tech transfer, and workforce development.

TRIF’s Origin—and its Future

Proposition 301 was a 0.6 cent sales-tax increase approved by Arizona voters in 2000. About 12 percent of the tax revenue is collected for TRIF. The majority of the revenue is slated for K-12 education, with a small amount for the state’s community colleges.

In 2018, Gov. Doug Ducey signed SB 1390 to extend the 0.6 cent tax for an additional 20 years after its expiration in 2021.

The distribution of the Proposition 301 money for its first 20 years cannot change, because it was approved by voters and is therefore protected by a provision in the Arizona Constitution. The extension signed by Gov. Ducey earlier this year keeps TRIF at 12 percent of the collected revenue.

However, once the extension takes effect in 2021, the Legislature may send bills to the governor amending the tax revenue distribution. This could lead to the reduction or elimination of TRIF funding, which would be a significant blow to university research, commercialization, and entrepreneurship in Arizona.

One Year’s TRIF Distribution—and External Leverage

In fiscal year 2017-2018, the Arizona Board of Regents reported TRIF received about $77.2 million in revenue, which was leveraged for an additional $457 million from external funders.

ASU spent $32.5 million, NAU spent $12.4 million, while UA spent $28.6 million of TRIF funding this past year, with ABOR spending $1.5 million, according to the 2018 report produced by ABOR.

At ASU over the past year, TRIF-funded initiatives led to efforts to advance a universal cancer vaccine, Alzheimer’s disease research at the ASU-Banner Neurodegenerative Disease Research Center, and the development of a low-cost Zika diagnostic, plus the launch of 33 new startup companies and issuing of 72 patents. An $8.5 million award from the National Cancer Institute will establish the Arizona Cancer Evolution Center. Since TRIF began, ASU’s research expenditures have nearly quintupled to $600 million.

At NAU over the past fiscal year, faculty who received TRIF funds through the Improving Health Initiative received $11 million in external grant funds, according to the ABOR report, and a new doctoral degree program in interdisciplinary health began along with a Master of Nursing degree in Personalized Learning. Also, NAU and Translational Genomics Research Institute were awarded two patents tied to novel assays, while Regents’ Professor Paul Keim received nearly $500,000 to study drug resistance to a potential bioterror agent.

At UA, with its two medical schools and a clinical partnership with Banner Health, a five-year, $64 million “All of Us” program grant in precision medicine was awarded by the National Institutes of Health, according to the report. The Keep Engaging Youth in Science (KEYS) Research Internship program, which began with nine interns more than a decade ago, now has 428 teens who have completed the program. Finally, Biosphere 2 is preparing to become home to the largest reef research tank in the world, the report states.

About 40 percent of the funding in fiscal year 2017-2018, or about $29 million, was spent on health and bioscience. Other subjects include water, environmental, and energy solutions; national-security systems; and space exploration and optical solutions. An emphasis is also placed on providing higher-education access to improve workforce development.

Much of this research is possible because of the new facilities TRIF money helped construct—the Biodesign Institute and Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU; the Pathogen Microbiome Institute and Center for Ecosystem Science and Society at NAU; and the Bio5 Institute and Tech Launch Arizona at UA.

A Key Tool to Advance Arizona Biosciences

Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap was launched by the Flinn Foundation in 2002 as a decade-long strategic plan as the first revenue from Proposition 301 was flowing to the universities.

The Roadmap, which has been extended through 2025, has a goal of Arizona becoming globally competitive and a national leader in select areas of the biosciences, including precision medicine, cancer, neurosciences, bioengineering, diagnostics, and agricultural biotechnology.

TRIF is critical in helping Arizona reach its five overarching goals, including forming an entrepreneurial hub; turning research into practice; developing bio-talent; promoting Arizona’s convergence of research, health care, and commercialization to economic partners in neighboring states, Canada, and Mexico; and enhancing the state’s “collaborative gene” reputation.

Read more: Technology and Research Initiative Fund FY2018