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'Wonderful Opportunities'

Jun 03, 2024 05:43AM ● By C. Grant Jackson

(Photo by Kim Truett/University of South Carolina)

As the new vice president of economic development for the University of South Carolina, Stephen Cutler, Ph.D., will oversee the university Office of Economic Engagement. Cutler will lead the university’s efforts to partner with private industry, drive workforce development, and contribute to the state’s economic development strategy.

He will have to juggle those responsibilities while remaining dean of the USC College of Pharmacy, a position he has held since 2016. He also served as the university's interim provost. The USC Board of Trustees named Cutler to the economic development post in March, replacing Bill Kirkland, who retired. 

“I selected Steve for his successful track record in research and economic development, his years of relevant leadership experience, including the interim provost position, his commitment to being a visible leader, and his demonstrated ability to innovate,” USC President Michael Amiridis said at the time of Cutler’s appointment.

Cutler, who earned his undergraduate and his Ph.D. degree in 1989 from the University of Georgia, has been a pharmacy educator for more than 30 years. He previously was at the schools of pharmacy for Ohio Northern University, Mercer University, and the University of Mississippi.

The son of a native of London, who emigrated to the United States, Cutler was actually born in Trinidad, West Indies, where his father, a natural products researcher, was working with the British Tate & Lyles Central Agricultural Research Station. His father, Horace G. “Hank” Cutler, was part of the team that developed the artificial sweetener Splenda.

His father later joined the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Station in Tifton, Georgia, where the younger Cutler would attend high school and go on to college at the University of Georgia, earning a bachelor’s degree and Ph.D. 

Following in his father’s footsteps, Cutler himself has become a renowned natural products researcher including becoming an expert in cannabis, marijuana. During his career, he has received more than $40 million from various federal agencies including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Defense (DoD), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). In addition, he holds with his father more than 50 patents and has developed three companies in the areas of water treatment, natural product development for agricultural use, and environmental protection.

Cutler says he is just getting his feet wet in the Office of Economic Engagement, “learning who's who, who's doing what. But I can already see wonderful opportunities to sort of shift with my experiences that are different than Bill Kirkland’s in advancing what this office is, is designed to do. He did a marvelous job giving me a great foundation to operate off, and I appreciate that tremendously.” 

We sat down in April for a conversation with Cutler about his new appointment and his approach to USC’s engagement in South Carolina’s economic development landscape. What follow is an edited transcript of that conversation:

Q. How has your pharmacy experience prepared you to lead USC’s system-wide economic development operation? 

A. I'm really humbled and honored that the board of trustees would elect me to this position. For them to have that level of confidence and trust in me is, is very rewarding. And I'm excited about the opportunity to lead this important aspect of the University of South Carolina. My background is one in which I'm formally trained to design and develop new medications. So much like an architect would design a building, I design medicines, both for prescription use and over-counter use. And with that, I have an understanding of working with federal agencies and some of the strictest ones in the world, particularly when you talk about the Food and Drug Administration, and the requirements to advance a new chemical entity into therapeutic use. 

Throughout my career, I've also had the opportunity to explore the development of agricultural chemicals. So, part of that comes from my father and his background, and so working very closely with him, we developed a lot of intellectual property. 

My father and I jointly have 50 patents. And so, it's through the commercialization of those scientific ideas that I'm able to have a good understanding of what it will take to advance this office. One of the things to keep in mind as it relates to this office is that it is in the top 100 universities in the world with the acquisition of utility patents. That's incredible. I don't know how many universities there are in the world, but there's over 4,000 in the United States. 

So, with that many utility patents being issued, there's great opportunity for somebody with my experience in the development of intellectual ideas and translating those into business practice to advance what we do at the University of South Carolina. 

If we talk about the University of South Carolina and what it does in the state, it, it fuels about $6.2 billion annually into the state's economy. That's remarkable when you think about it. What I hope to be able to do is to take some of those utility patents and begin developing structures around those to advance the development of small businesses. 

Over the past five years, this office has generated and facilitated the acquisition of almost $40 million in federal Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer grant awards. Almost $40 million. What I want to be able to do is begin advancing that to a point where we're fueling the states' economy and the United States economy in the development of new small businesses. 

Because small businesses are what really drive our economy. And so, I think the background I have in being able to get patents, the background I have in acquiring s SBIRs and STTR myself, has positioned me to advance this. So, it's not just what I've done in pharmacy, it's what I've done in, in other industries as well. 

Q. The previous director of the office, Bill Kirkland, came out of the tech world and was basically an entrepreneur in the tech world. He has that heavy business background, including launching companies. When you look at your credentials on paper, it says educator. 

A. That's right. I've been an educator. So, let me give you the story and then I'll answer your question that you didn't really ask: How does that transfer to this?

My Ph.D. is in medicinal chemistry, that's the formal name of the discipline. As I was earning that I was going to go to work for Merck or Lilly. And part of it was because of an aptitude test that I took in high school, and it said business and healthcare. So, I started advancing through college, taking classes that were going to prepare me for a business degree. 

I exempted calculus one, I get to calculus two fine, I do well. I get into calculus three, and I'm like, I'm missing something from calculus one, that's foundational.  I'm going to have to drop this class. 

So, I didn't go into business, I went into health care. As I was getting ready to graduate with my Ph.D., a faculty member came to me and asked me to teach three courses for him while he was going to be out of town. I didn't need all three to know I was going to change my career trajectory. I wasn't going to go to work for Merck or Lilly. I was going to become an educator because it was such a thrilling experience to teach. 

I did that, and along the way I started acquiring major grants from the National Institutes of Health. I have received about $40 million mostly from federal agencies. And most of that was to study cannabis. I'm a world expert on marijuana. I've studied it from the sense of the compounds that it produces and what the potential therapeutic use of those of those compounds can be. And I plan to pursue those when the time is right. 

So that's how an educator who was going to go into business ended up where I'm today. Now as it relates to my business acumen. Yeah. It's not as strong as someone like Bill Kirkland. But at the same time, I learned a lot using my own personal resources in the acquisition of those patents. And in doing so, when you're spending your own money, you learn a lot faster than somebody else's money. It’s easy to buy a house with somebody else's money. It's not so easy to do it with your own money. 

So, within that, my father and I developed three companies. And so, it's not like I don't have that skillset, but when I talk about who I am, you look at my CV, it's all about an educator and researcher. What I don't highlight, because I don't look at it as part of my academic pedigree, is what I've done for my own personal money, on my own personal time.

And that's why I'm well suited for this job. 

Q. Looking at your background and thinking about the new medical school coming to the BullStreet District, how will that campus figure into the economic development landscape for USC? Are we looking at, if not a shift, a tweaking perhaps toward more life sciences company development than tech company development? 

A. So there are wonderful opportunities, not just for the advancement of healthcare in Columbia, in the state of South Carolina, but also for the advancement of other areas of STEM for the University of South Carolina. It is time for us to really pay attention to what's going on and begin to advancing all these areas, but especially the healthcare area because we're all getting older, and we all need more healthcare. 

I'm excited about that campus. And with that, the opportunities for economic engagement as well as economic development. A couple of examples would be as we build this, who are our clinical partners? And I don't mean Lexington Medical Center or Prisma. I'm talking about clinical partners who we purchase equipment from. We’re getting into some serious cash when we talk about some of the equipment that's used in the healthcare setting. So, we have opportunities to engage with those, those companies that provide clinical equipment to now help support the advancement of healthcare within the state of South Carolina. That’s a wonderful opportunity that we didn't have before we started talking about the development of health science campus. 

Q. You're going to remain dean of the pharmacy school while also doing this other job – two full-time jobs, basically. That's a tall order: working two jobs. How will you set priorities? How will you juggle? 

A. Over the 10 years I was at the University of Mississippi, I chaired a department, I developed a new department, I chaired a second department, I was editor-in-chief of an international scientific publication, and I was the principal investigator or co-PI of four center grants. And a center grant is the largest federal award that an entity can receive. 

Any one of those is full-time. As I was walking out the door, it was eight full-time jobs in a 10-year period of time. I relish this type of stuff. And it's not hard for me because of my organizational skills to be effective in both these jobs. 

I have great leadership in the College of Pharmacy. When I was interim provost, I gave an individual the opportunity to serve as interim dean. That individual excelled. 

So, it might seem like a tall order, but it's not when you have good people around you. My successes at the University of Mississippi were not because of me as an individual. They were because of those people that I had around me. You put great talent around yourself, allow them to do their jobs, and you don't micromanage. 

And you'll be surprised what an individual can accomplish in a short period of time. 

Q. What is going to be your priority for the Office of Economic Engagement? 

A. So we touched on a couple already. One is advancing partnerships on the medical campus. Another is advancing the development of intellectual property at the university into not just patents from the United States Patent and Trademark Office, but also developing those for small businesses. 

As I look at what's been done in the past, there are a lot of successes that have come from this office. But I think there's a lot of room for economic growth in the state of South Carolina through the utilization of the incredible abilities of faculty that are employed at our university.

Q. As the state's educational leader, USC contributes more than $6 billion annually to the state's economy. It helps meet the demand for ever-growing South Carolina workforce through innovative education, internships, and research. What do you see as the state's strength and weaknesses? 

A. That's a good question. In terms of the University of South Carolina, the state has incredible talents among the faculty staff, a body of students that are like sponges waiting to soak up water with their education. And what I see is the University of South Carolina advancing – not just what it does in the $6.2 billion that it fuels in the economy, but I'd like to see us double and then triple those numbers. 

And that is going to be done through working together with industry researchers, students, entrepreneurs, and government officials. And I think if we create a synergistic effect – not an additive effect – among those entities, we can double or triple that economic impact that we have on the state and expand that across the United States. 

That's my vision. 

Q. The Office of Economic Engagement is a single convergence point for industry researchers, students, entrepreneurs, and government looking to engage with USC. It cultivates technologies, champions entrepreneurship, and builds partnerships that drive economic and workforce development in South Carolina. What makes those innovation partnerships successful? 

A. It's the talents that each of those entities bring to the table. That's what makes it successful. And you can't miss one or more of those entities because if you do, it's not going to be as effective. All of those have to be at the table. 

The other component of this is the workforce development. Let’s talk about building out medicine as just a single example. We can develop physicians, we can develop nurses, we can develop pharmacists, but there are other aspects of that workforce that have to be developed as well. One of the things that I've been doing for the past eight years is working with SCbio, those are your life sciences. One of the challenges I've given to all the CEOs who are members of SCbio is to create internships and fellowships because that helps them round out the individual for their specific needs, while at the same time identifying whether this student is going to be a good fit for their culture. 

And so, it's a win-win situation. And I don't use win-win very often. In fact, that's probably the first time I've used it in five years. But it really is a win-win situation because they provide an opportunity for the student to see their company and train them with and build off the education of that student for their needs. So, I'm a huge proponent of internships. 

One of the things that the General Assembly did for the University of South Carolina last year was appropriate money for internships. And with that, I’ve got an extra little torque in the lever with these companies to say, we've got money at the University of South Carolina to support this. You don't have to spend any of your own money on it, but if you really want the talent and you want to develop it, we need you to partner with us. So, if we give you one, you need to hire one with your own money. And preferably I'd love to see it if we gave you one, you hired two. But at least do a match with us, so we can develop the talent and retain it. 

Q. Experience has taught us that thinking like a business can transform the way organizations develop products, deliver services, innovate technologies, and execute strategy. Breakthrough innovation introduces novel paradigms and platforms, and it creates new product families and economic opportunities. But it's never a solo act. Even the largest companies need partners. The problem is the majority's collaborations fail, especially when it comes to actually making breakthroughs. Why? 

A. I'll answer that this way. I've told you about my successes. But I didn't earn them myself. I earned them through collaborations with other people. One of the things that has allowed me to be as successful as I've been is taking talent, giving them resources, training them and letting them do that. And so, what you just described is true – collaboration. 

You can't do it all yourself. I can't. If you look at my CV, I didn't do it all myself. I had some damn good people around me. And I let them do what they have the talents to do. 

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