U climbing ladder in research rankings

Heather L. Mueller

The University hasn’t met its goal to be in the top three yet, but it’s climbing the ranks.

A new study found that North American universities lead the world market in developing research into profitable patents, products and companies.

The University ranked sixth among North American colleges for its ability to turn research into patents, and patents to products.

The University is ranked 27th globally for obtaining patents and 75th globally for the number of research publications.

The study, “Mind to Market: A Global Analysis of University Biotechnology Transfer and Commercialization,” was done by The Milken Institute, an independent nonprofit based in California.

As part of the University’s realignment goals, it must develop a plan to grab profitable research opportunities in the future as a means for it to realize its goal of becoming one of the top three public research universities in the world in the next 10 years.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California system and the California Institute of Technology are the top three biotech transfer leaders in North America, according to the study.

Biotechnology involves the research and production of anything from pharmaceuticals to genetically engineered seeds.

And biotechnology continues to grow, especially in three main areas, said Marc Von Keitz, associate program director for the University’s Biotechnology Resources Institute and researcher in biocatalysis and bioenergy.

Convergence, or the intersection of biotechnology and medical devices, industrial biotechnology or biocatalysis and bioenergy are the areas where the largest growth potential in biotech lies, Von Keitz said.

“We have built over the years a very good infrastructure,” he said. “We are not yet a top-notch infrastructure, but we have a lot of components here.”

Taking ideas to the next step, Von Keitz said, is where a gap still lies at the University.

“The main difference that I have seen is the spirit at the University,” Von Keitz said.

The University does not have the same degree of biotech entreprenuearialship as he experienced in Silicon Valley as a graduate student at Stanford.

“We are still a little bit behind,” Von Keitz said. “We have relationships between venture capital groups, but probably not as strong as Stanford.”

But the University researches biotechnology in a variety of areas such as agriculture, biology and engineering, Von Keitz said.

Larry Wackett, a biofuel researcher with the Biotechnology Institute, said the University’s breadth in chemical engineering and agricultural science is an advantage.

“The breadth of the ‘U’ is the biggest positive,” he said.

Tim Mulcahy, the University’s vice president for research, said the study reflects a consistent pattern of high-level performance that is in line with the University’s strategic positioning goals.

“We have faculty who are very successful at being creative and innovative at coming up with new technologies that have the potential to improve the quality of life,” Mulcahy said.

Ziagen, a pharmaceutical drug used to treat AIDS, generated significant revenue for the University, Mulcahy said.

“Across the board, developments in biomedical devices and medicine have been the most consistent areas of success,” he said, naming biomedical engineering as the “hot spot” in terms of revenue potential.

He said revenue generated by research patents and products are essential to the University’s core mission. Research funds, he said, are “replowed” into research, building infrastructures as well as endowments for student fellowships and scholarships.

“All of the royalty returns that the University realizes from tech transfers is actually utilized to benefit faculty, staff and students,” he said.

Mulcahy said renewable resources are also a high priority for the University.

“We think it’s critical for the state of Minnesota,” he said. “We think we’ve got a lot to offer so it’s definitely a major research initiative for us.”

Mulcahy said an entrepreneurial environment is necessary to compete with some of the opportunities on the coast.

“What we are trying to do here is help faculty and staff be aware of commercialization potential,” he said.