The value of having a research school in your midst

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From smartphones to new medical treatments to better-tasting apples, many of the technologies and inventions we enjoy today were developed at research universities, then scaled and commercialized for the public by the private sector through a process called technology transfer. That unique role of a professor as an inventor, and the practical education of many thousands of students who work as assistants, make research universities vital to the growth and vibrancy of cities, farms, states and our nation.

Heartland Forward, a think-and-do tank with the mission of improving economic performance in 20 states located inland from the East and West coasts (the heartland), recently evaluated which U.S. universities are best at creating new knowledge through technology transfer in a report called “Research to Renewal: Advancing University Tech Transfer,” and the University of Minnesota Twin Cities was ranked No. 1 among universities in the heartland, No. 5 among all U.S. public universities nationally and No. 10 among all U.S. universities.

Overall, Research to Renewal says, the University of Minnesota offers a great example for other U.S. universities looking to improve their technology commercialization enterprise, noting its experienced tech transfer team and their creation of industry leading programs that allow companies low-risk opportunities to “try and buy” new technologies, and its thriving startup incubator and seed capital programs.

The report coincides with a significant milestone for one aspect of technology transfer at the university: the launch of its 200th startup company since 2006. Nearly 3 out of 4 of these startups, which commercialize university ideas and inventions, have located in Minnesota, making the U the state’s single largest source of startups. These companies have an impressive rate of success, with nearly 80% still active today and with 10 either acquired or having gone public since 2017. And the university is getting better at spinning out companies with a high potential for success, launching a record 20 startup companies in fiscal year 2021 alone.

It is generally underappreciated that since 1945, tech transfer from research universities, both through startups and licensing to existing companies, has been a foundation of the innovation ecosystem driving our economic growth and ensuring our national security. With ever increasing competition from abroad, U.S. states, cities and rural areas, especially those inland from the coasts, should look to universities, the innovators in their midst, for renewed partnerships in their pursuit of prosperity. As Research to Renewal points out, research indicates that this approach, correctly channeled, can create high-paying jobs in the top 5% of incomes as well as broader inclusive economic growth that yields more middle-class incomes in a region.

You can see the promise of that kind of growth in the university’s 200th startup company, Knine Biotech, which is using artificial intelligence for early cancer detection in dogs. The company relies on the university’s unique STEM and biomedical strengths, and it brings those strengths to Minnesota’s startup ecosystem. The university’s diverse startup companies inject leading-edge technologies across many different fields into that same ecosystem. For example, Claros Technologies is creating filters using nanotechnology to clean up “forever chemicals” in our waterways, and Niron Magnetics, which recently raised $21 million for a Twin Cities pilot production facility, is commercializing sustainable and less-rare magnetic materials used in electric cars and windmills.

The Heartland Forward report recommends that leaders in higher education consider the pooling of invention disclosures, patents and venture capital funds, perhaps funds created by universities’ alumni, across multiple states to reduce the risks involved in commercialization and potentially spur greater regional success. The report also has recommendations for state and local officials in the heartland. Governors and legislatures should consider providing direct funding for technology transfer offices as an economic development initiative; facilitating the creation of university consortiums across heartland states, and helping to implement best practices in commercialization at all research institutions. Universities are evolving, too; working at the speed of industry and increasing their research focus on solutions with scalable potential.

The University of Minnesota already has a great start on tech transfer-driven growth, but there is great potential in thinking as a region, be it the entire state, the Upper Midwest or a broader coalition of middle-of-the-country states. Actually, there is great risk in not doing so. As the report states, “This should resonate in heartland states as they attempt to close the gap in economic performance with coastal locations.” Leaders and policymakers in states that don’t have the major technology hubs of our East and West coasts should carefully consider the report’s recommendations on leveraging and connecting their universities and entrepreneurial faculty. There is no time to waste.

Ross DeVol is president and CEO of Heartland Forward, whose mission is to improve economic performance in the center of the United States by advocating for fact-based solutions to foster job creation, knowledge-based and inclusive growth and improved health outcomes. Michael Oakes is interim vice president for research at the University of Minnesota and will begin a new role as senior vice president for research and technology management at Case Western Reserve University this summer. His views are his own.

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