by Sascha Matuszak

A grant of nearly $1.4 million on its way to the University will bolster recent efforts by school administrators to establish research programs in rural Minnesota.
Donated by the Minnesota-based Blandin Foundation, the grant will be funneled entirely to the Sota Tec Fund, which funds research and technology transfer through the University. The fund supports the development of University research discoveries into commercial products and works to have them manufactured in rural Minnesota.
The grant is part of a $5.3 million initiative approved Jan. 15 by the foundation to tackle environmental and economic situations in the state’s rural communities.
“By supporting Minnesota businesses and entrepreneurs who seek to develop new products, the Sota Tec Fund will ultimately lead to a strengthened economy in greater Minnesota,” said Paul Olson, president of the Blandin Foundation, in a statement released Tuesday.
University researchers have been receiving funds from the Sota Tec Fund since 1993. The idea for the fund arose in the late 1980s through the prodding of Tony Potami, then-associate vice president for research and technology transfer. At the time, many University inventions were untested because of a lack of funding to determine their commercial value.
Much of the same is true today as the last several years have seen University faculty members submit more than 100 proposals from the University’s 5,000-project, $300 million research enterprise.
Ed Wink, associate vice-president for research and technology transfer, said discoveries are far from being ready for the market, even after a patent. He added that Sota Tec supports further study and research that might lead to a commercialized product.
Recent projects funded by Sota Tec include: a method for farm odor control, magnetic field sensors 10 times more sensitive than the ones used in anti-lock brakes, and bio-artificial livers.
However, funding for a product has its limits.
Emil Pfender, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, had support for a diamond film project for six years before the funding expired.
Not only does some funding have expiration dates, but some of Sota Tec’s requirements are tough to meet.
“Sota Tec requires that we bring in an industry partner,” Pfender said. The partner is usually from rural Minnesota.
He added that many industry partners are reluctant to spend money on new technology. Pfender’s project is still without a tie in the industry, so Sota Tec cut off funding, for now.
Another obstacle is the quick turnover in personnel in the technology industry.
“You have to have a personnel bond, you have to have the right person,” Pfender said.
Wink said very few projects make it to market for a variety of reasons, but royalties from the ones that do are divided among the University, the researchers and Sota Tec.