Industry drives research careers

The University finds success with private-sector research collaborators.

Isabella Murray

It’s in laboratories — not classrooms — that University of Minnesota students often determine whether they want to pursue research as a career.
“I thought it would let me know if I liked research or not,” said first-year student Amanda Nguyen, who is exploring the Lassa fever virus as a lab assistant. “When you go into college, you feel like a hot shot — but when you are around doctorate students and lab professionals who are really passionate about their work, it is humbling and neat.”
In 2015, overall funding for University of Minnesota research grew for the second fiscal year in a row — but as federal funding has waned, the private sector has become a more significant source of research dollars.
Business and industry funding — which now accounts for more than one-tenth of all externally supported research — grew by 41.3 percent, according to a report from the Vice President for Research last December.
School officials credit relationships between the land-grant school and corporations as a major factor in the record-high level of external research funding.
“We are setting the standard for new ways to work with industry and to facilitate public-private partnerships,” said Leza Besemann, technology strategy manager with the University’s Office for Technology Commercialization. 
She said that other research universities followed Minnesota’s lead and implemented programs similar to the Minnesota Innovation Partnerships and the Corporate Engagement Workgroup, which facilitate public-private partnership. 
Industry relationships, University research officials say, not only help sponsor research but can work to commercialize University inventions and provide career opportunities for students.
“Many of the companies interested in funding research also have employee positions or internships open,” said the Kevin Coss, a spokesman for the Office of the Vice President for Research. “[The] ‘U’ can help connect them to the many talented students and graduates with the right expertise and ambition they’re looking for.”
MN-IP allows companies to explore University research and test-drive new technology before deciding to license and bring inventions to market. It has led to 175 research agreements since its 2011 launch.
“Each of those agreements has fueled new research and aided in the development of new technology … new consumer products, better medical treatments or more efficient industrial practices,” Besemann said.
While the University certainly benefits from the 2015 boost of $13 million for external sponsorship of research, companies are equally interested in partnering with the school, said Maura Donovan, executive director of the Office of University Economic Development.
“Increasingly, when working with industry, our partners are looking at engaging comprehensively through colleges,” Donovan said.