State aims to commercialize U research


In recent years, the University of Minnesota has witnessed a slow decline in the number of new startup businesses based on its research. 

Taking research from the laboratory shelf to a retail store can be a difficult process – so difficult that one University official described it as the “valley of death” for nascent technologies.

But the state is now trying to turn the downhill slide in the University’s technology commercialization into an upward climb.

On Friday, the state’s Science and Technology Initiative Advisory Commission met for the first time in St. Paul to begin outlining a new statewide science and technology economic development plan.

 “This is really addressing the economic future of the state of Minnesota,” Tim Mulcahy, the University’s vice president for research, said.

 “[The outcome of this plan will affect] everything from our ability to support workforce education … to our ability to keep an innovative economy,” said Mulcahy, one of two University officials on the committee.

The committee is charged with creating high-paying jobs in new, rapidly changing and emerging fields such as biotechnology and renewable energy.

“There’s a lot of knowledge being created in the private sector … that’s not accessible to the community unless you incent them to spin that knowledge out and create local companies with it,” said Dale Wahlstrom, a committee member and CEO of the BioBusiness Alliance of Minnesota.

Public sector institutions like the University have similar problems.

“It only starts with an invention,” said Art Erdman, a committee member and director of the University’s Medical Devices Center. “From there you have to absolutely have money and a pathway between that [invention] and commercialization.”

This path to commercializing an idea is especially long and trying, Erdman said, referring to it as “the valley of death.”

The committee will encourage the state to create laws and regulations that both support and retain science and technology-based companies in the state.

According to a report from the University’s Office for Technology Commercialization, new University startup businesses shrank in number from four in fiscal year 2007 to one in fiscal year 2009.

 Additionally, a 2007 report from the Corporation for Enterprise Development ranked Minnesota 48th nationally in new company formation.

More legislation along the lines of July’s “angel” tax credit is projected to jumpstart Minnesota business investment and reverse these trends.

Research, development, investment capital and industry support are a few contributing factors that the committee highlighted as needing improvement in order to create science and technology job viability within the state.

In order to improve these areas, Minnesota will pull ideas from a professional consultant and from other states with similar plans already in place.

Minnesota is specifically modeling its program after Ohio’s Third Frontier, which began nine years ago.

As Minnesota faces what Minnesota Science and Technology Authority Executive Director Betsy Lulfs called a “tough upcoming budget year,” the advisory committee has no solid plans yet for funding the program. Individual companies, federal grants and foundation support will be pooled, but the committee is looking primarily to the state government to fund its endeavors.

Third Frontier took its funding woes straight to the public twice and found itself with more than $2 billion in overall funding, Third Frontier Commission Executive Director Norm Chagnon said.

As the Minnesota Science and Technology Authority seeks to give its own statewide science and technology industry a facelift, “We’ve really got to figure out how to work together,” Erdman said. “This is a fabulous opportunity.”