U research-based startups honored

Researchers behind both companies said earning grants is highly competitive.
By
  • Alex Bitter
October 31, 2013

Two startup companies that rely on University of Minnesota research projects are being recognized for their innovative use of federal funding.

The Science Coalition, a national nonprofit that advocates for federal investment in research universities, recognized Heat Mining Company LLC and Steady State Imaging as leading examples of using federal funding to conduct research that led to
economic growth.

Both startups spawned from, or heavily draw on, University research. Lead researchers from both said they probably wouldn’t have started without funding from the federal government.

The Science Coalition gave honors to 100 companies in total, all of which began with federally funded research at major universities.

Harnessing carbon dioxide for energy

Martin Saar, a University earth sciences associate professor currently on sabbatical, led a study on a new type of geothermal energy that harnesses carbon dioxide stored underground to generate electricity.

Heat Mining Company of Rapid City, S.D., later bought the energy technology and refocused its business around the University-created research.

Saar said two federal grants totaling $3.7 million allowed his research team to investigate the advantages of using carbon dioxide, instead of water, to generate geothermal energy.

“We needed those federal grants, or the research would not have gone forward,” he said.

Saar said the fact that the federal government was willing to invest in the project made it easier to attract private investors.

“By simply showing how much the federal government is willing to invest in research for this new technology, that is … an endorsement,” he said.

Jimmy Randolph worked with Saar on the project as a post-doctoral researcher, and now he is the chief technical officer for Heat Mining Company. He said his company is considering more research facilities in Canada, where public funding is more accessible and less competitive than in the United States.

“It’s going to be a while before we do anything here, because we … only [look for] private sources of funding,” he said.

Randolph said the team has considered itself lucky to receive as much federal funding as it did.

Quieting MRI machines

Michael Garwood, a professor at the University’s Center for Magnetic Resonance Research, led the effort to develop a new magnetic resonance imaging machine that makes less noise than traditional models. Garwood and a colleague founded Steady State Imaging in 2005 after developing the technology.

In 2011, General Electric purchased SSI to use the technology in its own MRI machines.

Part of a grant from the National Institutes of Health funded the research, Garwood said.

But today, across-the-board federal budget cuts, known as the sequester, have made the competitive grant application process even more cutthroat, he said.

“You get two shots at [a grant application],” Garwood said. “You can revise it once, and if you don’t make it, you’re done — you’re not supposed to resubmit it again.”

University Vice President for Research Brian Herman said in a press release that the two companies illustrate the importance of protecting federal funding for research.

“Basic research is an essential driver of innovation, and continued federal investment is critical for the future growth and health of our local communities and our society at large,” he said.

 

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