Lawmakers working to fund University biotech efforts

A partnership with the Mayo Clinic has received state funding in the past.

by Alex Amend

University supporters in the Legislature are fighting for biotech funding to help Minnesota compete with other states.

Two University biotechnology ventures, the Minnesota Partnership for Biotechnology and Medical Genomics and the University Enterprises

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Laboratories, have state support this legislative session in the form of bills authorizing funding to help the programs grow.

The Senate Business, Industry and Jobs Committee approved the Minnesota Partnership’s request for $15 million in funding last week.

“What we are talking about is cures and jobs (for Minnesota),” said Sen. Ann Lynch, DFL-Rochester.

The partnership between the Mayo Clinic and the University, formed in 2003, has always received state funding, but now the partnership is looking to the state for a long-term commitment by way of recurring funds.

“The problem is, without the (recurring) funding we are really not able to plan,” said Dr. Mark Paller, co-director of the partnership.

Paller said he’d like to be able to invest in targeted research, like projects on Alzheimer’s and obesity, and updated infrastructure. Commercializing findings with business partners like IBM would also help, he said, but enhancing the “staying power” of the partnership is critical to the partnership’s ability to recruit scientists.

“We’ve established a fair amount of momentum and don’t want to lose it,” said Paller.

Another factor in the request is the price of competition: 41 states have similar bioscience programs with the majority receiving more than the Minnesota Partnership. California and Texas have state-sponsored initiatives that run into the billions of dollars.

Paller said the partnership doesn’t need a large increase in funding, as the partnership has had “wonderful returns” with the modest amount given by the state since 2003.

“We don’t need $2.5 billion a year, but we certainly need some kind of commitment so that we’re on the map,” he said.

In the House, bill 290 would appropriate $5 million to the University Enterprises Laboratories.

The joint venture between the University and St. Paul provides lab and office space for small bioscience businesses and promotes advances in biology and biotechnology.

“It’s a way to help businesses get a foothold into a stage where they are a profitable enterprise,” said Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, who authored the bill.

The one-time request would primarily relieve UEL debt.

“The city and many industries and the University have made commitments,” said Mahoney. “The state never has.”

Mahoney said many other states in the region have funded bioscience incubators similar to the UEL, and that helping the enterprise compete will benefit the state’s economy.

Randy Olson, UEL general manager, said the money would be used to enable the enterprise to offer competitive rates to tenants, as well as fund new research projects and possibly new buildings.

“We are hopeful that the state will provide leadership in terms of helping us, and the direction of the UEL,” Olson said.

The bill has been referred to the Higher Education and Work Force Development Policy and Finance Division.