This Urban Research University Is Also an Economic Powerhouse

Resources for entrepreneurs and industry partnerships have made it easier than ever for University of Minnesota inventions to hit the market.

University of Minnesota engineering professor Jian-Ping Wang holds a magnetic nanobiochip that he created to detect proteins and DNA that signal the early stages of cancer.
National Journal
Sophie Quinton
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Sophie Quinton
June 17, 2014, 8:29 a.m.

This art­icle is part of an Amer­ica 360 series on Min­neapol­is.

MIN­NEAPOL­IS — Ji­an-Ping Wang doesn’t like run­ning com­pan­ies, but he’s already star­ted two, and a third is un­der way. Wang has also filed 39 pat­ents. “I don’t like to be driv­en by money, by any oth­er people,” says the Uni­versity of Min­nesota en­gin­eer­ing pro­fess­or. “I like work­ing on something I fig­ure is really in­ter­est­ing, fun­da­ment­ally dif­fi­cult.” But Wang also thinks about how his work could be ap­plied bey­ond the lab. 

Over the past dec­ade, the Uni­versity of Min­nesota has over­hauled its pro­cess for com­mer­cial­iz­ing re­search dis­cov­er­ies. It’s be­come easi­er for uni­versity en­tre­pren­eurs to start com­pan­ies, and for ex­ist­ing com­pan­ies to li­cense and sell tech­no­logy pro­duced by uni­versity pro­fess­ors and stu­dents. The push to get in­nov­a­tion out of the lab and in­to the mar­ket­place could amp­li­fy the uni­versity’s already big im­pact on the Twin Cit­ies’ eco­nomy.

There are about 48,000 stu­dents en­rolled at the Uni­versity of Min­nesota, Twin Cit­ies, mak­ing it one of the largest pub­lic-re­search uni­versit­ies in the coun­try. In 2012, UMTC ranked 14th na­tion­ally in high­er-edu­ca­tion re­search-and-de­vel­op­ment spend­ing, put­ting it above MIT. The U (as the Twin Cit­ies cam­pus is known loc­ally) has an $8 bil­lion eco­nom­ic im­pact on the met­ro­pol­it­an area each year, ac­cord­ing to uni­versity of­fi­cials. That cal­cu­la­tion doesn’t in­clude the im­pact of re­search dis­cov­er­ies. But here are some stat­ist­ics: Since 2007, 65 com­pan­ies have come out of uni­versity re­search. Last year, the uni­versity filed 148 pat­ents on be­half of Min­nesota pro­fess­ors and stu­dents. Ac­cord­ing to the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, cit­ies with high pat­ent­ing rates tend to have lower un­em­ploy­ment rates.

Wang, with his three com­pan­ies and 39 pat­ents, is un­usu­al even by top re­search uni­versity stand­ards. Wang was born in China, and has worked at Min­nesota since 2002 as a mem­ber of the elec­tric­al- and com­puter-en­gin­eer­ing de­part­ment. His en­thu­si­asm for his sub­ject is in­fec­tious. Most en­tre­pren­eurs have a story about work­ing night and day to launch a busi­ness. Wang’s story is about work­ing night and day to build a ma­chine that turns disks of iron sil­ic­on or iron co­balt in­to im­possibly tiny, mag­net­ic particles. The ma­chine, which fills most of a room in Wang’s lab, looks like a met­al cyl­in­der ex­plod­ing.

The idea for his second start-up came when his fath­er died of can­cer. “I figured there must be something that an en­gin­eer can do,” Wang says. Oth­er rooms in Wang’s lab house test­ing equip­ment — cir­cuit boards, a vi­al of clear li­quid that may have con­tained hu­man an­ti­bod­ies — that he and his stu­dents used to cre­ate a tech­no­logy called “mag­net­ic nan­o­bi­o­chips.” The ul­tra­sens­it­ive chips can de­tect pro­teins and DNA that sig­nal the early stages of can­cer.

When Wang makes a dis­cov­ery, he can walk across cam­pus to the Of­fice for Tech­no­logy Com­mer­cial­iz­a­tion to see if the tech­no­logy is new enough — and has enough com­mer­cial prom­ise — to make it worth­while to make an in­tel­lec­tu­al-prop­erty dis­clos­ure or file a pat­ent. Most re­search uni­versit­ies these days have an of­fice that helps re­search­ers file pat­ents, find com­pan­ies to li­cense pat­ents, and start com­pan­ies.

Min­nesota’s of­fice is par­tic­u­larly ef­fect­ive. It’s headed by Jay Schrank­ler, a former man­u­fac­tur­ing ex­ec­ut­ive. “Every­one in our of­fice has come from in­dustry, which is unique. And we run this like a com­pany,” Schrank­ler says. By hir­ing people who un­der­stood how both busi­nesspeople and sci­ent­ists think, the uni­versity has de­veloped bet­ter re­la­tion­ships among com­pan­ies, in­vestors, and aca­dem­ics like Wang. 

OTC helped Wang pat­ent his tech­no­logy, and fun­ded his ef­forts to turn the chips in­to a product. Wang de­signed some hand­held devices and a desktop sys­tem that in­clude the chips. All doc­tors or pa­tients have to do is add a ur­ine sample and the nan­o­bi­o­chip does its work.

OTC also has a busi­ness unit called the Ven­ture Cen­ter that serves as a star­tup in­cub­at­or. Un­der­stand­ing that re­search­ers like Wang have no in­terest in giv­ing up their day jobs, OTC re­cruits a ‘CEO-in-res­id­ence’ — an ex­ec­ut­ive will­ing to take over the nas­cent com­pany. Wang’s re­search be­came a com­pany called Zepto Life Tech­no­logy, now based in the Twin Cit­ies area. One of Wang’s former stu­dents is the re­search and de­vel­op­ment dir­ect­or. Wang him­self has an ad­vis­ory role and a small equity stake.

“We talk a lot about start-up com­pan­ies, but that’s only about 10 per­cent of our activ­ity here. The oth­er 90 per­cent are oth­er ex­ist­ing com­pan­ies that li­cense our tech­no­logy,” Schrank­ler says. The uni­versity’s latest in­nov­a­tion in li­cens­ing is a pro­gram called Min­nesota In­nov­a­tion Part­ner­ships — MN-IP, for short. Com­pan­ies seek­ing to spon­sor uni­versity re­search can pay more money up­front to get ex­clus­ive, world­wide rights to any res­ult­ing in­tel­lec­tu­al prop­erty. There were 41 such part­ner­ships last year, and they’re ac­tu­ally a pretty good deal for the uni­versity. Most of the time, when a com­pany ap­proaches a uni­versity for help with a re­search prob­lem, it’s look­ing to in­vest­ig­ate an early stage idea. There’s no guar­an­tee the grant or part­ner­ship will lead to a dis­cov­ery, and more of­ten than not, the re­search doesn’t res­ult in a pat­ent.

When Schrank­ler ar­rived at UMTC in 2007, there were 193 in­ven­tion dis­clos­ures (the step that usu­ally pre­cedes pat­ent ap­plic­a­tions), he says. In 2013, there were 331. He at­trib­utes the surge to the Of­fice of Tech­no­logy Com­mer­cial­iz­a­tion’s ini­ti­at­ives. But the pro­ductiv­ity has been shaped by forces bey­ond the uni­versity, too.

Some fed­er­al grants re­quire re­search­ers to state how they would com­mer­cial­ize any tech­no­logy res­ult­ing from the fun­ded re­search. The Uni­versity of Min­nesota has to reach a tar­get num­ber of in­ven­tion dis­clos­ures each year, or the state Le­gis­lature will with­hold 1 to 2 per­cent of the uni­versity’s base budget. Al­though fed­er­al grants still make up about 70 per­cent of the uni­versity’s re­search awards, lag­ging fed­er­al spend­ing has led the uni­versity to seek out more cor­por­ate part­ner­ships, and those tend to in­volve ap­plied re­search. 

Com­mer­cial­ized re­search can cre­ate jobs, busi­nesses, even whole new in­dus­tries. A top-flight re­search uni­versity that can jump­start new in­dus­tries — as well as sup­port ex­ist­ing strengths, like the Twin Cit­ies’ med­ic­al devices sec­tor — can be an in­valu­able driver of eco­nom­ic growth.

Cor­rec­tion: An earli­er ver­sion of this art­icle mis­stated the size of the Uni­versity of Min­nesota’s eco­nom­ic im­pact on the Twin Cit­ies.

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