Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Selective Amnesia Demonstrated by U of M Administration?

Thomas Lee, in his most excellent blog - Patents Pending - goes after the U of M for one of my pet peeves.

Selective memory

Posted on June 14th, 2009 – 8:41 PM

By Thomas Lee

“The benefits to the university are substantial. This is designed to help faculty who develop ideas with economic potential to develop a business plan, work with venture capitalists to refine their ideas, and do research necessary to move the idea into something that … can help fuel Minnesota’s economy.”

University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks- October 2004

Development of this type of biotech laboratory and entrepreneurial corridor will help the region and state take better advantage of its native assets, such as the university, the Mayo Clinic and companies like Medtronic, Guidant, Cargill and Ecolabs, important forces in medical, industrial and agricultural applications of bioscience. University faculty, for example, bring in $500 million per year in sponsored research funds, and their work drives the development of new technologies, which in turn create the need for laboratory incubator space.

Star Tribune Editorial Board- October 2004

My, what short memories we have. The two above quotes in 2004 referred to the construction of the University Enterprise Laboratories, a 120,000 square foot laboratory and office facility in St. Paul that was supposed to incubate promising startup companies based on research originating from the University of Minnesota.

Today, do you know how many of the 25 or so companies at UEL come from the U? Zero. None. Zilch.

I don’t know what’s more upsetting: that we can spend $20 million on a building that, despite the name, has little to do with the U or that our state government has repeatedly failed to pass an angel investor tax credit that could provide crucial, hard to find, early stage funding to high tech startups.

Hmmm….building or money, building or money, building or money. I’m going to say money.

The state didn’t actually spend anything on UEL. The non profit group that oversees the facility took out a $13.8 million bond that it might not be able to pay back when the principal comes due in 2012. The U chipped in $2 million, and corporate titans Medtronic and Xcel also contributed funds. St. Paul is also on the hook for a $6 million loan.

In hindsight, the brains behind the project admit that UEL didn’t go exactly to plan. For one thing, in 2004, the U’s Office of Techonology Commercialization, which is responsible for licensing U technology and spinning off companies, was, at best, ineffectual, and at worst, dysfunctional. You can’t incubate U-bred companies when they don’t exist. Either someone didn’t do this due dilligence back in 2004 or really didn’t really care.

UEL officials note the building is 95 percent occupied by some promising startups like Syntiron and Cima Nanotech. They also say the building’s attractive, spacious design is a plus when investors and companies visit.

Okay. But UEL supporters back in 2004 didn’t exactly say the goal was to build what’s suspiciously looking like a $20 million real estate showpiece.

For some reason, Minnesota just likes the idea that building buildings will somehow create a biotech industry. The U, perhaps learning nothing from this experience or maybe would just like to forget UEL all together, is moving forward with a $292 million project to build four bioscience buildings behind its new football stadium. The state will pay the debt service on $233 million of that bond.

Minnesota is also providing millions of dollars in infrastructure improvements to the planned Elk Run biosciences project in Pine Island. At least that project has the backing prominent biotech investor Steve Burrill. But there’s been little information so far about how such a business model is going to work.

I don’t want to be a complete hater but I think it’s important to acknowledge our mistakes and learn something from it. To stimulate a biotech industry, one needs things that can’t easily be seen or touched-a risk taking enterpreneurial culture, backed by strong state support and a robust pool of venture capital.

But that requires the type of reasonable, strategic thinking that seems to be lacking in Minnesota.

Especially at the University of Minnesota, where the administration seems hell-bent on repeating the mistakes of the past. As long as they can get the money out of someone, apparently what they have said in the past doesn't really matter.

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