University vies for $100 million research donation

Biomedical research institutes would be established at selected universities.

Elena Rozwadowski

With $2.1 billion up for grabs, research universities across the country are chomping at the bit to get their hands on one of 12 $100 million endowments from California billionaire Alfred Mann.

The University might become one of those recipients.

The Alfred E. Mann Foundation for Biomedical Engineering wants to use this money to establish biomedical research institutes at selected universities over the next six years, said Stephen Dahms, the foundation’s president and chief executive. These institutes, run jointly by the foundation and the schools, would encourage the development and marketing of new medical processes and devices, he said.

“Mr. Mann is providing substantial undiluted capitol to move university intellectual property forward,” Dahms said.

While earlier reports said it was unclear which organization – each university or Mann’s foundation – would have discretion as to which research ideas went forward, University Vice President for Research Tim Mulcahy said the University’s priorities will not change.

“The (University’s) research agenda would not be modified or directed by the institute,” Mulcahy said. “All of our programs would continue independently.”

The University only has just begun the process of being considered for this endowment, he said.

“The ‘U’ has not decided whether to formally accept the invitation to participate, preferring to learn more about the program and its processes,” Mulcahy said.

The University, he said, needs to see whether the institute is compatible with existing programs and objectives.

University officials will meet April 28 with the head of the Mann Foundation in what Mulcahy called a “mutual fact-finding mission,” where both organizations will get a better feel for their future plans and goals. After the meeting the University will decide whether it wants to continue with the selection process.

The next step, should the University decide to continue, would be another visit from Dahms sometime this fall, followed by a later visit from the full committee, possibly in May 2007. If the University is selected, both parties will discuss the formal agreement and terms of the endowment.

“Personally, I think we have everything necessary to be highly competitive for selection if we were to decide to pursue the opportunity further,” Mulcahy said.

The proposed institute would have 50 to 70 medical industry employees conducting research on intellectual property produced by the University, Dahms said. Faculty mentors and students also would have a presence in the institute, developing ideas and working on research.

In exchange, the institute would have access to all University amenities, just as any college or department does, although its research would be independent of that of the existing University Biomedical Research Institute, Dahms said.

Because there are still a lot of details to learn, the University’s biomedical department does not know what to think about this new institute.

“There’s not a lot of opinion because (the information) is so preliminary,” said Robert Tranquillo, a professor in the biomedical department. “Most faculty members haven’t even heard of it.”

But there are some concerns. Because these institutes are jointly run, other universities being considered for the endowment, such as North Carolina University and North Carolina State University, have expressed concerns about the ownership of intellectual property.

Dahms said the dialogue between the schools has been “fantastic.”

“There have been no concessions on either side, he said. “It’s been understanding what the intents and legal phrases mean and the conversion of the document into a framework that is more amenable to university administrators.”

Still, Mulcahy said he has read these concerns and that they will guide the University’s questions in the upcoming meeting.

“We believe we need to proceed on the basis of solid information,” he said. “The answers to these, as well as other key questions, will be a primary focus of our upcoming discussions.”