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Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt encourages state leaders to ‘grab the baton’ to keep tech economy booming

(DESERET NEWS, by Art Raymond) SALT LAKE CITY — Three-term former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt laid a lot of groundwork during his time in office that’s been paying huge economic dividends for the state for the past 20-plus years.

But he noted in a talk Monday that the generational baton is now in the hands of new leaders, and in order to maintain the state’s economic vitality, now driven in large part by the technology sector, new and decisive actions are required.

While investments made in the ’90s under Leavitt’s administration that included upgrading infrastructure via the $4 billion Centennial Highway projects, bolstering higher education outcomes with the Utah Engineering Initiative, and aggressively recruiting out-of-area tech investment in the state, those efforts, Leavitt said, are ready for a reboot.

“The next leaders of this state will have to take bold risks, will have to step up and invest, will have to innovate in ways that were unnecessary for us, but this generational relay requires it,” Leavitt said. “The running room we created in this state is essentially gone. Leaders … will be required to update the (economic) foundations for the next 18 years.”

Leavitt, speaking at the Utah Technology Innovation Summit in downtown Salt Lake City on Monday, has had a storied career that’s included success in the private sector before a chain of public service positions that led him from the Utah Governor’s Mansion to the nation’s capital. Leavitt served as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush before assuming another Cabinet-level job just over a year later, also for Bush, as secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

While at the helm of state government, Leavitt helped lead Utah’s charge into the digital age with efforts to get residents wired following the advent of the internet, launching the nation’s second-ever state government website and vowing to spend more time in Silicon Valley “than California’s governor” in a running strategy to bring new innovation investment into the Beehive State.

One of those Bay Area pursuits involved a face-off between Utah and Arizona in a bid to secure a new facility for the, at the time, wildly popular eBay online auction platform. Leavitt said he’d done his homework on the service, including engaging in his own online sales to “figure out how the whole thing worked.” Turns out, that may have been a clincher on Leavitt’s quest to bring the new, 400-employee office to Utah.

Awaiting a final decision on where the new facility would be located, Leavitt pulled his trump card during phone call with eBay’s then-CEO Meg Whitman.

“Meg, I’ve got a suggestion for you on how you decide,” Leavitt recounted telling her. “Why don’t you find out if the governor of Arizona has an eBay account … and if he does why don’t you compare our customer ratings and go with the highest one.

“It may be coincidental, but we got the deal the next day.”

Leavitt’s tech bona fides are numerous and include bringing semiconductor giant Micron Technology Inc. to the state in 1995, co-founding, along with former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, one of the country’s first online-only schools, Western Governor’s University, and in 1997 was the first U.S. Cabinet-level official to launch a blog.

Leavitt said the seeds of the idea behind his engineering initiative — one that more than doubled the output of engineering and computer science graduates from Utah universities and amassing some 40,000 Utah graduates in those categories since the program’s launch in 2000 — were sown by a conversation with tech legend John Warnock.

Leavitt said Warnock, a computer graphics innovator who earned his doctorate at the University of Utah before going on to participate in the first incarnation of the internet as well as co-founding software giant Adobe, highlighted what Utah was lacking, at the time, through the eyes of the relatively new, and burgeoning, U.S. high-tech industry. And, according to Leavitt, it was a dose of harsh reality.

“Look, you want tech jobs in Utah you’ve go to have more engineers,” Leavitt recalled of the conversation with Warnock. “Utah isn’t investing a fraction of what it needs to. Tech companies like Adobe can’t come to Utah unless you fix that.”

Years later, Leavitt noted, the circle was completed when Adobe did come to Utah, swallowing web analytics startup Omniture in a $1.8 billion deal in 2009. Last year, the company doubled down on its committment to Utah, breaking ground on its second facility in Lehi with plans in place to double its workforce in the state.

While Leavitt presented the keynote address of the innovation summit, attendees also attended breakout presentation sessions that covered topics including international tech investment opportunities, energy sector innovation, early stage funding in the state and tech-based rural economic development.

The 32nd annual Governor’s Medals for Science and Technology were also presented by Gov. Gary Herbert’s deputy chief of staff, Mike Mower, at the event. Those awards went to Bryant Middle School math teacher Diane Crim for K-12 education; University of Utah chairman of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences Dr. Randall Olson for academic/research; Intermountain Precision Genomics for industry; and Merit Medical founder and CEO Fred Lampropoulos received the lifetime achievement award.

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