Group would allocate research funds

by Sarah Hallonquist

Despite University resistance, Minnesota industries looking for more control of the school’s research have allies in the Legislature.
The concept, embodied in the Northstar Research Coalition, was included in the Senate’s higher education bill, but its fate relies on persuading reluctant House members to lend their support. Even with that support, backers need to win over University administrators. Made up of a 12-member board of directors, the Northstar Coalition mainly researches digital science, biology, multimedia and design. With more control of University research, Northstar would have the responsibility of allocating private money for research projects.
State money would be appropriated for start-up costs, but would need to be matched by private sources before it could be used. If implemented, companies like Medtronic or 3M could fund research projects at the University that are tied to their own business initiatives.
Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, is the idea’s main Senate supporter. He sees its implementation as crucial to the state’s future.
“We need to promote more research and collaboration with the private sector,” he said.
The concept is one of five recommendations set forth by the Citizen’s League in a January report.
“What we want to do is try to capitalize on the research capacity at the University because it’s world class,” said Ron Wirtz, a Citizen’s League research associate.
Wirtz, who wrote the report, said there’s a feeling in the business community that the University could make its research projects more applicable to local business interests.
For example, he said the growing medical device and software industries could benefit from research in University departments in the form of licensing options and technology transfers.
“If private industries are going to be investing in a lot of research, it seems tome that if they’re willing to pay the University to do some of that, it would be wise to maybe grab as much as you can,” Wirtz said.
But University officials aren’t as optimistic.
Graduate School Dean Mark Brenner said while it is important for the University to involve outside sources in its research, he fears giving them too much control, which would send the wrong message.
“The University clearly would benefit with more resources. It’s the question of then what’s the best way those resources should be managed,” Brenner said. “But to insert a board to manage this adds a level of bureaucracy that is probably unnecessary.”
He added that the University already has several successful business partnerships, including a $2 million project with Minnesota Technology Inc. The endeavor supports small businesses involved with University researchers.
Within Northstar, research dollars would be available on an application basis, not unlike common procedures of the National Science Foundation, which funds much of the University’s projects.
The coalition is modeled after the Georgia Research Alliance, which was developed in 1990. It is a partnership between Georgia’s six research universities, local business and state government.
To date, the alliance has sponsored research projects in three areas: establishing new companies, attracting companies to the region, and infusing new technology into local companies. The alliance helped increase research funding at Georgia universities by about $300 million from 1990 to 1996.
The Citizen’s League report suggested $20 million to $30 million in state money for a three- to five-year period. However, if the full Legislature accepts the Senate’s numbers, only $500,000 will be allotted this year.