The University of Minnesota is a model for how academic research can generate commercially useful knowledge, ideas and products that can help grow the economy.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar expressed that view last week while touring the University’s Nanofabrication Center on the Minneapolis campus. The Minnesota Democrat sits on the Commerce Committee and is chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Competitiveness, Innovation and Export Promotion.
The Nanofabrication Center supports research and education in the development of new materials and devices by manipulating matter at the molecular and atomic level — in a range between 1 and 100 nanometers. (A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, and about 10 atoms fit inside one nanometer.)
The center focuses on areas ranging from optics and lasers to electronics, magnetic, mechanical and medical applications.
Klobuchar visited the center in part to gain input from University and industry representatives on pending reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act, which is aimed at increasing federal support for research and development and at improving science, technology, engineering and math education.
The 2007 law has been a substantial source of funding for the U through the National Science Foundation, according to Klobuchar, one of its co-sponsors.
“Universities are an essential foundation for innovation and economic success,” she said. “The University of Minnesota has long been a leader in fostering cutting-edge research that not only advances scientific knowledge, but also leads to new technologies, new products and new jobs. We must continue to build on that strength.”
Klobuchar noted that the University’s patent filings last year increased by 25 percent, with revenue from technology commercialization up nearly 10 percent to $95 million. The biggest success came from the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline’s licensing and marketing of the AIDS treatment drug Ziagen.
In addition to more than 365 University-affiliated researchers, about 200 external research projects for private companies or organizations use the center’s equipment and facilities, paying about $850,000 a year to cover their costs, according to the Center’s director, Stephen Campbell. The center’s budget totals about $3.6 million.
Executives from BH Electronics in Burnsville and NVE Corp. of Eden Prairie also met with Klobuchar to describe how their companies have used the center’s facilities and equipment. They made the point that the center has been invaluable to smaller companies in developing new products.
Since 2003, University-based technologies have figured prominently in the launch of 18 companies, according to University statistics.
Tim Mulcahy, U of M vice president for Research, applauded the senator’s support for continued R&D funding and suggested that the reauthorization legislation be changed to allow a portion of future grants to be used for patent filings during early stages of research.
He also said that the government could do more to encourage academic research partnerships with the private sector through such actions as asking for a commercialization plan as part of the grant application process.
The House of Representatives already has passed the reauthorization, but Senate action has not been scheduled yet. Funding authorization expires at the end of the current fiscal year.
Klobuchar said there is bipartisan support for the bill in the Commerce Committee but that it needs broader support in the full Senate to pass.