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Dr. Sanjay Singh: Alabama ethics laws cripple researchers, universities 

Sanjay Singh is an academic, entrepreneur, and early-stage startup investor. Singh taught at the University of Alabama at Birmingham for 20 years. Together with former students and colleagues, Sanjay has launched and exited multiple startups. Singh currently serves as Chairman of the Alabama Capital Network.

I dropped out of college in 1985 and moved to the US from India with no money.

I was a kid far from home, with no idea what direction my life would take or what prospects life in this new country held for me. For a homesick young man, unaccustomed to life in a place with endless possibilities, it was a scary prospect.

But everything has changed.

This country has given me the greatest gift in the world – the American Dream. Through hard work, dedication, and support from incredible leaders, I have learned to seize the opportunities this country offers and better myself. I have learned firsthand that with relentless effort and perseverance, anyone who calls this country home can thrive here and live a successful life.

A key pillar of the American Dream is the ability of entrepreneurial young people to start businesses, hire employees, and contribute to their communities. As a professor at UAB for 18 years, I have I hope to serve Alabama by teaching, conducting research, pursuing entrepreneurial opportunities, and ultimately supporting successful businesses that create great jobs in our state.

Public-private partnerships with academic institutions are absolutely essential to the success of Alabama businesses and startups, but that is not the case today. The current structure of our state's ethics laws limits the ability of university faculty and researchers to develop these partnerships, harming Alabama's economy and future growth.

States need to simplify their ethics codes and provide greater clarity to empower researchers, not restrict them. The current laws are the same for legislators and governors as they are for university researchers and school teachers. Public servants are a whole different world, so it's no wonder that current ethics laws are difficult to understand. Academic researchers are not elected officials and should not be subject to the same rules as politicians.

“University researchers routinely develop intellectual property that can and should be commercialized to create jobs and economic growth in Alabama. We watch other states' economies benefit greatly from these activities. Yet in Alabama, current law limits the ability of university researchers to pursue commercialization opportunities from their research.”

For example, some universities limit the time that researchers can spend commercializing their ideas to only 20 percent, including their personal free time. We can't create groundbreaking work with these limitations, and we can't recruit the best researchers to our great public universities if we are more limited in what we can do here than in other states.

Furthermore, the complexity and uncertainty of our current laws discourage researchers from pursuing their goals for fear of accidentally running afoul of the law. As a result, our state’s top intellectual and academic talent often leaves for neighboring states where the laws are clearer and more willing to adopt them. This means less brainpower, innovation, and economic growth in our state.

Simply put, the current legal structure limits universities’ ability to attract and retain top talent.

These limitations are why I left a great institution like UAB that I hold dear to my heart, working under a current legal mess that would not allow us to adequately help Alabama startups succeed.

A bill introduced by State Assemblyman Matt Simpson would help remove these barriers by simplifying the rules for state universities and researchers. The bill makes it clear that researchers can develop and commercialize their discoveries as long as they follow policies set by the university. This is a great step in the right direction and puts state universities on the same footing as their counterparts in other states.

While I no longer work for a public agency, I am one of many people in the private sector who are committed to fostering entrepreneurship and the development of new technologies across our state. To further these goals, I serve as the chair of the Alabama Capital Network, a nonprofit that brings together a diverse group of individuals and organizations dedicated to helping Alabama small business innovate.

Enshrining collaboration with our state's educational and research institutions is essential to ensuring our state's ability to compete on the global stage. Senator Simpson's solution to this issue should be enacted to better enable those who call Alabama home to achieve the American Dream.

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