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U of M president hopes business partnerships pay off

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Eric W. Kaler
University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler is prioritizing establishing closer relationships with business and industry to bring more funding for research, more money for scholarships, and more internships and job opportunities for U of M graduates.
Photo from Stony Brook University

From the moment University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler took charge in September, he made establishing closer relationships with business and industry a priority.

Since then, Kaler has delivered that message at nearly all of his public appearances. He hopes the effort pays off with more funding for research, more money for scholarships, and more internships and job opportunities for U of M graduates.

Although the university has hundreds of partnerships with business and industry, the new president isn't satisfied.

"We have a track record of interactions with companies over the past decade or so that's really been pretty flat, we haven't been able to grow that interaction," Kaler said.

An important indicator of the university's interaction with industry is funding for research. Last year, the U of M received $46 million in research dollars, 8 percent less than five years ago.

Other indicators show similar flat performance. For example, in overall corporate giving for programs and scholarships, the U of M received $41 million last year. Although that was less than the $42 million the university received in 2007, the number of corporate donors fell during the last five years, from 4,100 to less than 3,500.

Kaler wants to boost those numbers by making it easier for industry to strike up relationships with the U of M.

"What I'm interested in doing is to lower the barriers to that productive interaction," he said.

Toward that end, U of M officials recently announced that the university would allow companies to keep the intellectual property rights to whatever technology or products come from university research they sponsor.

In the past, such sponsorship arrangements kicked off months of negotiations over property rights between university and industry lawyers that sometimes derailed research deals all together.

So far, reception on campus to Kaler's outreach to business and industry has been positive, said Chris Cramer, a chemistry professor at the U of M and a leader in the Faculty Senate.

But Cramer said some faculty members want to the university to tread carefully, especially when receiving research funding from companies interested in making a profit.

"One does want to make sure the research is not potentially tainted by researchers that feel they need to provide a certain result to maintain a funding stream," he said.

Cramer said sponsored research is growing more important as funding stream as state officials cut support for higher education.

But U of M officials say increasing that funding also helps students gain valuable research experience.

In a chemistry lab on the U's Minneapolis campus, PhD student Elizabeth Jackson is developing a new type of polymer filter. Her work is funded by a grant from the Pall Corporation, a New York-based manufacturer.

The filter Jackson is working on contains tiny pores only about one-billionth of a meter in size.

"It could be used potentially as a water filtration membrane or as a virus filtration membrane," she said.

Jackson said her research has given her great experience that she could draw on in careers in academia, industry, or perhaps both.

U of M officials also hope better partnership with industry will create more internship opportunities for students.

"What is going to separate the students they're going to hire will be the types of experiences they've had as students, " said Jay Bell, associate dean of academic programs for the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences. "To have those experiences we need to have close partnerships with industry in order to make those happen."

When approached about internships, business executives want to help, and often wonder why the U didn't ask sooner, Bell said.

Kaler also hopes the U of M's improved industry partnerships will give it influential allies at the Legislature who will defend the research university should state lawmakers consider cutting the university's public funding.