Friday, July 16, 2010

Tim vs. Tim, Round II.

MedCity News Picks Up on My Suggestion

Earlier today I posted Round I. "Tim Mulcahy Strikes Back, University of Minnesota Research VP Responds to Criticism."

Thomas Lee is right back with an excellent follow-up:

Tim vs. Tim feud is good for Minnesota.

Beers and burgers on me.

Tim Mahoney and Tim Mulcahy share a lot more than their first names and initials. The two men have been allies on everything from angel investment tax credits, the creation of the Minnesota Science & Technology Authority, and the need for Minnesota to more fully convert its formidable research assets into real technologies.

“I get up sometimes and say what the heck am I doing this for?,”
Mulcahy said. “If I’m going to get slammed for making a huge effort and making a huge investment or equally slammed for doing nothing’ you know? Mama didn’t raise no fools.”

Yet believe it or not, the dispute itself reflects real progress.
That two fairly important guys would openly argue about something as arcane as technology transfer shows how far we’ve come.

Mahoney has been in the legislature a long time so why call out the university now? You don’t complain about something unless you think someone actually cares about it.

I’m not the only one who sees the silver lining. From William Gleason, a university faculty member who writes The Periodic Table blog:

"This discussion is a great start.

We need an open dialogue between the members of the business community and the higher-ups at the U. What Dr. Mulcahy says above is very encouraging.

I suggest a meeting at the BigTen for burgers, beer, and a discussion between Mulcahy, Mahoney, the U’s tech transfer folks and people like [venture capitalist Vance Opperman.]

Let’s finally start working together?

Also invite some folks from the state legislature, Dems and GOPers, for a serious and frank discussion."

Something tells me Mulcahy is not in the mood for a (Burgers and) Beer Summit, at least right now. (Maybe if they were Jucy Lucys.)

“I think the state of Minnesota in general has a done a very poor job in this domain,” he continued. “I would say the U is a part of that team so we have been a part of the failure to date to get to where we have to go. I do think the university has been very proactive in trying to create change in university and partnering outside the university to try to move the agenda forward.”

You can’t blame Mulcahy for being a wee defensive. Fairly or unfairly, politicians from both parties love to take shots at the university.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty (another Tim!) once ridiculed OTC at an investment conference where university-bred start-ups were seeking money. Dan McElroy, commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), reportedly threatened to wage “budget jihad” on the university if Miromatrix Inc. left the state. (He denies this.)

Why do people openly rip the university and not, say, Mayo Clinic, which sits on a very large reservoir of intellectual property?

“That’s a great question,” Mulcahy said. “And I’ll be honest with you. It is a political minefield to give you a straight answer. Why the U and not Mayo? I would say: if you look at Mayo, for the volume of research they do, and it’s impressive, I don’t think they are any more productive [than the university]. I would even say they are less productive on a normalized basis.”

“We are a publicly-supported entity,” he said. ” I think there is a different expectation. I think it’s reasonable for the state to have different expectations for the university than Mayo. I think the academy has created some unrealistic expectations in our messaging about why we should be supported by the public.”

“What I mean by that is this: we go out and say that the research that is done by our public university is vital to the economic survival of the state,” Mulcahy continued. “That’s unquestionable. But what we have failed to do in delivering that message is that we are a part of the solution. I think we have inadvertently created the expectation that we alone can turn the economic tide.”

Mulcahy says he’s already told something like that to Mahoney and other politicians, both publicly and privately. Maybe they just don’t want to hear the message, he suggested.

Which is why it’s good to drag this debate into the public glare of the news media. By birth and design, Minnesotans are passive aggressive creatures- they complain behind closed (or partially opened) doors but rarely confront each other so openly. But those days are over. We have angel tax credits and a scientific authority to coordinate high tech economic development. We have the Biomedical Discovery District and the Elk Run project. We have several early stage venture capital funds in the works. None of this existed a few years ago.

We need to openly butt heads, if anything to ensure we’re on the same page, that we set high but reasonable goals for our efforts.

So while Tim and Tim probably won’t send each other Christmas cards this year, we can thank them for saying what needs to be said.

I’ll order some beers and burgers…just in case.


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