The end of the year is a time for reflection. As my tenure as the University of Minnesota’s vice president for research comes to a close and I prepare to join the U’s faculty, I am inspired by what we have accomplished over these past four years — and what the future holds. I had a chance to share this progress with the university’s Board of Regents at its December meeting.
The university’s research enterprise has grown in many ways over the past four years and has returned great dividends for Minnesota’s families, economy and future. We have sparked new, serendipitous collaborations that bring experts together from across disciplines and sectors to address societal challenges. We have enhanced public-private partnerships to increase industry-sponsored research and help move new discoveries beyond the lab. We have launched over 100 startup companies since 2006. And, crucially, we have strengthened our Human Research Protection Program to ensure the safety of human participants in clinical studies remains top priority.
Throughout this time, however, the U of M has grappled with the same looming challenge that so many other public universities struggle to address. How can we continue to advance knowledge and develop innovative solutions for society’s greatest challenges when the primary source of research funding — federal grants — is, when adjusted for inflation, shrinking?
A national model
What has set the U of M apart from its peers is our unique response to that challenge: MnDRIVE, Minnesota’s Discovery, Research, and InnoVation Economy program. This innovative partnership between the U of M and the state, launched in 2013, has fueled research in areas important to Minnesota’s economy and society, driven enhanced engagement and partnership with industry, created new jobs and brought in new outside funding to support further research. Through MnDRIVE, we have become a national model for how research universities can find mutual wins with public and private partners.
To date, the state has authorized more than $71 million in resources for MnDRIVE research across its four key areas: Robotics, Global Food, Environment and Brain Conditions. MnDRIVE researchers have more than doubled that investment by securing an additional $167 million in funding from major companies and agencies such as Boston Scientific, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Institutes of Health. MnDRIVE funding led to the hiring of 511 people, including nearly 300 faculty, graduate students and research staff, while the nearly 400 MnDRIVE-fueled research projects collectively bring us closer to new treatments for brain disorders, cleaner waterways, advanced manufacturing methods, and greater food security.
Benefits of expansion
But we have the chance to achieve even more. We have an opportunity to build on this model and further improve quality of life in our state. In the coming legislative session, the university will ask the Minnesota Legislature to expand MnDRIVE to include four emerging research areas of importance to our state and its future: improving cancer care statewide, advancing clean and abundant water, harnessing data to drive our economy, and eliminating disparities. The benefits of this important research will reach across the state. I strongly urge our legislators to support this investment in Minnesotans’ future.
As I transition to the faculty, our progress in discovery and innovation has galvanized me to resume my own research. I look forward to collaborating with colleagues and interacting with students as we address the health concerns of Minnesota’s aging population, such as Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.
It has been an honor leading the university’s research enterprise.
Brian Herman, Ph.D., is vice president for research at the University of Minnesota. In January, he will join the College of Science and Engineering as a faculty member in the Department of Biomedical Engineering.
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