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University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

From bench to business

September 26, 2011

Handshake between scientist and business person.

University of Minnesota researchers and science-based businesses are bonding to help the state reach its potential.

The U of M and businesses help each other flourish

By Deane Morrison

When she accepted the grand prize at the 2011 Minnesota Cup competition this month, Marie Johnson cemented yet another link between the University of Minnesota and the community of businesses based on scientific and medical research.

A statewide competition that rewards entrepreneurs with “breakthrough” ideas, the Minnesota Cup honored Johnson and her company, AUM Cardiovascular, for developing a hand-held device to detect coronary artery disease. The device has, apparently, already saved a life.

Johnson, who received a doctorate in mechanical engineering from the University, is an example of how knowledge and know-how regularly flow between the U of M and businesses. Those relationships create products and services that fuel the economy in addition to helping those who benefit from them directly.

At a September 20 event with business leaders, University President Eric Kaler underscored the importance of maintaining and extending close ties between the U of M and businesses.

“We are an engine of discovery, an engine of innovation, but that engine doesn’t move the car forward until it’s hooked to a transmission and a set of wheels, which you guys are able to do,” the president told the gathering. 

The flow isn’t one-way, of course. Industries have a long history of collaborating with University researchers and supporting research in areas that interest them. In fiscal year 2010 that support totaled $35.4 million.

Planning for tomorrow

In the past year, Vice President for Research Timothy Mulcahy served on the Minnesota Science and Technology Authority, which drafted a strategic plan to strengthen science- and technology-based industry in Minnesota and prioritize investment.

“We came up with a plan for how Minnesota can foster entrepreneurship, remove barriers to creating new businesses, and develop the workforce that will help the state compete in the 21st century economy,” Mulcahy says.

The U’s Office of Technology Commercialization guides University discoveries through the process of becoming patented and licensed to startups or established companies; this is a major avenue for “translating” research-based discoveries into marketable products, services, and jobs. Patent filings from University research rose from 51 in FY 2007 t0 66 in 2010; during the same period, the number of University-spawned startups rose from four to eight.

An indication that a collaboration has produced a marketable product is a revenue-generating agreement between the U and a company; the number of such agreements jumped from 281 in FY 2008 to 306 the next year and 399 in FY 2010.

One formal collaboration is IPRIME, a University/industry partnership at the U of M based on two-way knowledge transfer and support of basic collaborative research on materials. A consortium of more than 40 companies, IPRIME works with some 54 faculty members and also helps students gain experience at member firms.

Success stories

The stories of how University research has benefited business span virtually every field, from life sciences to agriculture, mathematics, and technology. Here are a few:

• Over the past five years, the anti-HIV drug Ziagen, the University’s most successful drug patent, has generated close to $350 million in revenue.

• In 2007 the U hired Gunda Georg, a star researcher with business experience who now heads the Institute for Therapeutics Discovery and Development and chairs the Department of Medicinal Chemistry in the College of Pharmacy. Among her contributions, she has altered the chemical makeup of a plant substance to produce a drug-like compound called Minnelide, which holds promise against pancreatic cancer and is now being scaled up for a phase 1 clinical trial. The ultimate goal is to provide safe, effective drugs to the pharmaceutical industry.

• James Collins, a professor of veterinary population medicine, invented an effective vaccine for porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, a disease that has devastated the nation’s pork producers.

• In southeastern Minnesota, a startup called Rushford Hypersonic is now making coatings for tools and car parts, building on technology developed by Steven Girschick, a professor of mechanical engineering.

The Medical Devices Center is a hub of activity for developing new technologies. Every year it brings in a new class of young, professional Innovation Fellows and gives them top-notch training and experience in developing devices that are both effective and marketable. (Johnson, the former director of the fellows program, left to devote herself to AUM Cardiovascular.)

In the realm of agriculture, University research on many economically important crops, including wheat, soybeans, and corn, is supported by growers’ organizations. The Minnesota apple industry received a welcome boost when researchers at the University’s Landscape Arboretum bred the popular Honeycrisp apple. Fruit breeding at the U has produced countless new varieties, including several grapes that—along with U expertise—lend support to vineyards around the state.

The University also runs the Minnesota Technical Assistance Program, which provides help to companies with specific problems. The U’s Carlson School of Management, besides training future business leaders, runs Carlson Executive Education, a program that collaborates with organizations to give their leaders essential business knowledge and skills. And the U’s Institute for Mathematics and Its Applications pairs University postdoctoral researchers with industries facing problems that require a first-rate mathematical mind to solve.

Nor is the Twin Cities campus the only place businesses can turn. For example, the Natural Resources Research Institute on the Duluth campus helps private industry succeed in an environmentally responsible way. 

These are just a few examples of how the University supports the business world, and vice versa. The “bottom line” is that the U works hard to bring its expertise and discoveries to people with the skills to make the most of them, to the benefit of the state and the world.




Tags: Inauguration

Related Links

Office of the Vice President for Research

Office of Technology Commercialization