Institute announces plans

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They have $67 million for the building, a $12 million endowment and 400 local medical device companies willing and ready to offer support. All of this for an institute with a faculty of two, and no undergraduate degree.
All that is about to change for the Biomedical Engineering Institute, which isn’t even a department. Pushing to gain that status by fall, the institute’s director, Dennis Polla, announced plans Wednesday evening to hire five to seven new faculty. The institute also will admit an incoming 30-member undergraduate class in the fall of 1999, and bump up graduate enrollment by 50 students.
Addressing a crowd of nearly 120 faculty members and industry representatives, Polla outlined a number of initiatives combining industry and academics. Many of the plans, some already underway, create new mentorships for students and tie biomedical engineering’s 25 jointly appointed faculty members from the Medical School and the Institute of Technology closer together.
The institute competes for students against established programs such as Johns Hopkins and Duke universities. Polla said he hopes recent enthusiasm from University central administration and his plan will create a national model for partnering medicine, engineering and business.
Polla outlined innovations in technology that will allow patients to return home sooner, doctors to conduct operations away from hospitals and scientists to construct bioartificial arteries.
“This sets the stage for how BMEI grows in the future,” Polla said. “The process of scientific discovery and creativity will lead to something much more down the road.”
Although one function of the institute is to act as a gateway for industry into the University, the main focus is to foster interdiscplinary interaction by opening research opportunities to a broader academic spectrum.
“What we want is to ensure that there is a pipeline of students graduating to populate companies and for research to expand so that we would have more direct research with these companies,” Polla said.
And those graduates may return to the University someday.
The additional faculty entices staff members of local medical companies to return to school to update their training, said William Mirsch, director of tissue development programs for St. Jude Medical, Inc.
While the institute’s plans focus on interdisciplinary work, others are more concerned with new interaction between the University and industry.
State Representative Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, is critical of the University’s approach to improving its programs.
“It’s a direction that should be done, but it frustrates me when it is the only direction, when it becomes so important that is pushes everything aside,” Kahn said. “The only people you’re supporting are the people getting industrial-type grants.”
One way the institute plans on achieving the desired interaction with industry is through a graduate course starting in fall 1999.
A company could sponsor a research project to be executed by students over a period of nine months. The proposed course is called New Product Business Development.
“Given the amount of industry in this area, the University really needs to spend a lot more time getting buy-ins from companies,” said graduate student Troy Graczyk, co-president of the Biomedical Engineering Society. “The relationship is such that there is a transfer of technology and skills back and forth.”
Medtronic Inc., a local manufacturer of medical supplies and technology, contributed $2 million to the institute created in 1996. Company officials cited the institute’s work in biomedical engineering as a main reason. However, the officials said their contribution was purely philanthropic with no intention of benefiting from University recruitment or research materials.
“I don’t think the University is on the top-ten list of universities that Medtronic recruits from,” said Medtronic Foundation official Lorrie Jenkins.
Jenkins said the University is on Medtronic’s reserve list of recruiting schools. Officials with the institute said the University is ranked 17th out of 38 graduate programs nationally.
Graczyk said that assessment of the program’s reputation in industry makes sense. However, he said the initiatives make him optimistic.
“Bringing together industry and showing them what the University does can only help to improve our standing,” he said.