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The one-seventh-scale models of Victory Systems's unmanned helicopter in the U's wind tunnel.

Victory Systems uses the University's wind tunnels to test one-seventh-scale models of its unmanned helicopter. The testing helps the company optimize the fuselage design by minimizing drag.

Helping business is U business

Academic and Corporate Relations Center uses University expertise to help companies near and far

By Silva Young

December 5, 2007

The phone rings quite a bit these days at the University of Minnesota's Academic and Corporate Relations Center (ACRC). From a business executive looking for a strategic way to spend the company's year-end money to a client seeking venture capitalists for a startup company, the center gets up to 20 requests a day from businesses.

"When the calls come in, it's pretty much soup to nuts," says Dick Sommerstad, ACRC director. "We help businesses any way we can because we know it will almost always pay off for the University in some way. It's a lot of matchmaking. If we can't connect them here at the U, we'll tell them where they can find what they need, and we'll do it in 48 hours."

As the front door to the University, the center assisted hundreds of businesses last year with relationship managers acting as their corporate concierge, and provided free services valued at more than $3.5 million for businesses, which included sponsoring workshops, seminars, and conferences.

For the University, the ACRC also generates new revenue. In its first year of operation, the ACRC generated about $2.1 million in fees-for-services revenue from hundreds of businesses. Any time a new sponsored research agreement is reached, a faculty member is hired as a consultant, or a collaborative agreement is signed, it's incremental revenue the University would not have had. For the state of Minnesota, that means new businesses and more jobs.

U seeks input from business community

The ACRC is conducting a survey of business leaders across the state. The "Minnesota Business Survey" was developed in consultation with academic colleagues at the U, business leaders, and business associations.

Please participate in the survey by December 17, regardless of your current relationship with the University. The Web-based survey should take only about 15 minutes to complete.

The ACRC was named Innovative Collaborator of the Year in the 2007 Minnesota Tekne Awards.

Here is a closer look at one recent success story that illustrates how the ACRC and the U--in this case the Institute of Technology--are working hand in hand with businesses to improve the economic vitality of the state and the nation.

Taking flight: Victory Systems, LLC

Duane Cox, Victory Systems chairman and CEO, was attending a meeting of the Defense Alliance of Minnesota when he met ACRC director Dick Sommerstad in September 2006. His company, which is based in Woodbridge, Virginia, specializes in cutting-edge robotics--specifically, unmanned vehicles for defense and commercial use. Cox told Sommerstad that he had just received a large contract with the U.S. Army for his company's new high-performance drone helicopter. But before production could start, he needed to find a wind-tunnel facility that was capable of testing the one-seventh-scale model of the helicopter, which incorporates artificial intelligence in the control systems. Cox had looked at several facilities nationwide but felt they didn't meet all of his needs.

Upon gathering Cox's requirements, Sommerstad and Ron Antos, a relationship manager at the ACRC, put him in touch with Gary Balas, professor and head of the Institute of Technology's Department of Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics.

After evaluating the department's facilities, services, and expertise, Victory Systems decided they fit the bill for the testing required for their contract with the Army. An agreement was drawn up to use the department's wind-tunnel facilities as well as the services of Greg Nelson, a University aerospace engineering and mechanics staff scientist, who has been on the project since February.

"The company is looking to optimize the fuselage design by minimizing drag," explains Balas. "You obviously want the wind resistance to be as low as possible. The less wind resistance you have, the higher the helicopter's performance and speed."

The department's two wind tunnels, located on campus in Akerman Hall, are used for student instruction, research, and outside contracting. One is a large closed return (re-circulating) tunnel, the other a smaller open (blow down) tunnel.

"Our wind tunnels are instrumented to collect a variety of information concerning both wind tunnel and test subject performance," says Balas. "Tunnel air temperature, barometric pressure, differential pressure, and balance force and moment values can be configured, and data collected digitally in real time.... The closed tunnel is capable of airspeeds of about 90 mph; the open tunnel maximum is about 85."

As Victory's helicopter testing proceeds and its design takes flight, the company is building facilities in Burnsville and moving most of its operations from Michigan to Minnesota. The company expects to employ about 1,000 people--many of them engineers--within the first three years of operation.

That's good news for the state's economy.

"Minnesota would spend thousands to attract a company with 1,000 employees," says Sommerstad. "Once they are up and running, they will need accountants, human resources people, and all the support staff that make up an organization. The bottom line is that Victory is a high-tech company that is here in Minnesota because of the University's Institute of Technology."

For more information about the Academic and Corporate Relations Center, visit ACRC.

From Inventing Tomorrow, a publication of the Institute of Technology.

Amy Danielson contributed to this story.