U, city envision research incubator

by Sam Kean

Two of the credos chiseled above Northrop Auditorium watch over the University both literally and figuratively.
“Dedicated to the advancement of learning and search for truth,” reads one. Just below that: “Devoted to … the welfare of the state.”
With record federal research grants coming this year, the University will be strong on the first for years to come.
But to continue its devotion to the welfare of Minnesota, U officials say the University needs to adapt.
As Stanford University and the University of North Carolina, among other schools, have shown research can translate into big bucks for both the school and the state — if done right.
In 1995-96, Stanford made $44 million from technology licenses, including $30 million from one recombinant DNA patent, according to the school’s Web site. Restriction-free, this provided for 10 percent of the school’s research budget that year.
By developing a research and technology park, also known as a technology “incubator,” the city of Minneapolis hopes to work with the University to do just that.
Incubators are private companies which turn research into business.
In exchange for stock options, incubators provide researchers with start-up funds, make business connections and provide office space for companies who need guidance in a chaotic business/technology environment. In short, they provide everything but the research itself.
U officials said The Minneapolis Community Development Agency is already scouring University labs for prospective clients; they hope to open the incubator by 2003.
The proposed 13-acre research park is part of a larger plan to reclaim a neglected area of the city: the Burlington-Northern railyards that stretch between the Mariucci Arena and the St. Paul Student Center.
The city wants to transform rusted boxcars and scrap metal into a campus atmosphere lush with green space, affordable housing and a technologically stimulating atmosphere that will keep quality tech jobs from leaking into the suburbs.
With the park, “both the city and the University win,” said University director of planning Harvey Turner.
Minneapolis still collects property taxes because private interests will fund the incubator, explained Turner; and the University avoids conflicts of interest that might arise from a government-supported institution running a private incubator.
Plus, the research park’s proximity to campus will make it enticing for University researchers.
But before anything happens, the city needs to add utilities, roads and communications infrastructure to the railyards, as well as clean up accumulated junk and petroleum spills.
For the park to succeed, the incubator must succeed. And for the incubator to succeed, it needs tenants and products.
Enter the University.
“We have a right and responsibility to pursue commercialization developed under federal sponsorship,” said Christine Maziar, vice president for research.
Maziar is quoting from the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act, a federal law which transferred intellectual property rights from federal government to university control.
As a result of that change and the volatile shelf life of current technology, the University needs to market research products aggressively or risk losing millions of dollars.
Consider Ziagen, an AIDS drug developed by University medicinal chemist Robert Vince. After licensing the drug to pharmaceutical giant Glaxo-Wellcome, the University will reap a portion of its expected $300 million in annual sales.
In the same way, the University retains a financial stake, either stock or equity in incubated companies that are based upon research conducted by its employees.
While most start-ups do not explode, incubators take that chance and keep their fingers crossed.
With the possibility of millions of dollars bubbling in University test tubes and a convenient way to channel it to the public, the University may have more, as Maziar put it, “big hits” in its future.
If so, the University’s profits will divide up as follows: one-third goes to the inventors, one-third goes to the college under which the product was developed, and one-third goes to supporting University offices that oversee patents.
But Maziar said extraordinary profits would not “corrupt” basic research.
Instead, Maziar said by working together private companies and the University can renew the commitment to basic research and the pursuit of knowledge — which does, after all, receive top billing at Northrop.

Sam Kean welcomes comments at [email protected]