Meet Elizabeth Nelson: A Champion for Use-Inspired Research and Industry Partnerships at the University of South Florida

April 30 | insights

At the University of South Florida (USF), faculty and student researchers are gaining real-world insights and taking their research initiatives to new heights via the Florida High Tech Corridor’s Matching Grants Research Program (MGRP). At the heart of this program lies Elizabeth Nelson, MGRP director at USF. In her role, she drives applied research collaboration by building connections between students, faculty and industry partners in Tampa and beyond.

A USF Bull herself, Nelson, leverages over seven years of experience across various domains to enhance her role in economic development. Her tenure at USF, coupled with her deep familiarity with the campus and surrounding business communities, positions her for success in her role. In addition to serving as the liaison between USF’s research community and local businesses, Nelson also helps companies secure Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) awards as a collaborator in The Corridor’s FL FAST initiative.

One of her proudest moments as program director came in 2022 when she coordinated the launch of two new pilot programs: the Undergraduate Research Initiative and Early-Stage Innovation Fund at USF. These programs allowed Nelson to apply The Corridor’s research investments in exciting new ways, fueling the type of exploratory research that largely goes unfunded in the region, and providing opportunities for students from diverse disciplines to get involved in research activities even earlier in their studies.

When she isn’t cultivating the innovation ecosystem, Nelson loves hanging out with her family at one of Tampa’s renowned breweries, kicking back with a delicious Hazy IPA. And if you challenge her to a game of Connect 4, be prepared – she’s a formidable opponent!

How would you explain your job to someone who’s never heard of “ecosystem building” before?

Primarily, I help build connections between the USF research community and local companies and offer funding to support these relationships through The Corridor’s Matching Grant Research Program. These connections help companies develop, validate or expand their product offerings (and in turn grow their business). Additionally, they help university faculty and students understand the real-world applications of their ideas and technologies – plus students have the chance to network and learn about post-grad career opportunities!

What advice would you give to people who are new to ecosystem building?

My biggest piece of advice is that we are not in short supply of resources and support for entrepreneurs and innovators, but it can feel difficult to navigate and overwhelming. However, the key is to jump in and start meeting people and learning as much as you can. You never know where a connection might lead!

What resource or resource organization do you wish more entrepreneurs knew about?

The America’s Seed Fund (FKA SBIR/STTR program). This is a federal funding program for small businesses to bring innovative technologies to market. Not only is it a great (nondilutive) funding opportunity for companies, but it also allows them to collaborate with USF faculty and tap into The Corridor’s Matching Grants Research Program. It can take time and effort to crack into the federal funding world, but it’s a tremendous opportunity for growing tech-enabled businesses.

In your role, which questions are you most frequently asked?

The most common question I’m asked by companies is “How long is it going to take to launch a research project with the university?” My answer is that we’re working to build long-term, mutually beneficial relationships, so managing expectations on both sides is key. Our overarching goal is to quickly make introductions and then manage the next steps from there. The university has standard processes and document templates to keep things moving quickly, but like any relationship, it can take time.

What company in our ecosystem should more people be talking about?

Well, I can’t pick a favorite, but all the companies in USF Tampa Bay Technology Incubator are doing fascinating, impactful work. Seeing the challenges they are tackling gives me hope that we have the right minds working on the world’s ‘wicked’ problems.

What has been the most surprising thing you’ve learned about our regional innovation ecosystem?

The most surprising thing I have learned about our regional ecosystem is the breadth and depth of research underway at the University of South Florida. I have companies and entrepreneurs reach out to me regularly looking for collaborators. Whether it is engineering, biology, MEDtech or even fungi, we have experts in every field! There is something for everyone.