University centers cash in on outsourcing services

Research centers offer services to businesses to offset their costs.
A bench fermentor agitates a sample batch for experiments with bio-energy for a external company on Wednesday, April 3, 2013, at the Biotechnology Resource Center at St. Paul. The University has contracts with outside companies that do not have the necessary facilities or resources.
April 08, 2013

 

From sequencing entire genomes to designing sustainable buildings, the University of Minnesota offers a wealth of resources and services for researchers and industry.

With decreased federal research funding and high technology costs, each lab at the University can’t afford its own equipment or tools needed for complex scientific tests and processes.

Many research centers at the University have turned to businesses to garner more revenue, which can subsidize the cost for researchers to use the equipment.

Navigating the dozens of centers, institutes and technology offerings can be a challenge. In 2006, upon recommendation from businesses and lawmakers in the area, the Office of Business Relations began to act as a “front door” to the University, helping businesses find what they need.

But University centers don’t have to work on whatever project businesses tell them to, said John Merritt, Office of the Vice President for Research spokesman.

“It really has to be a match between what the business is looking for in terms of a research project and the researcher’s interests,” he said.

Some of the more than 30 centers offering services to industry earn up to 80 percent of their funding from businesses, while others receive almost none.

University policy dictates strict rules for offering services.

When working internally with University researchers, centers have to charge for services at a break-even cost, so a profit isn’t made.

For external businesses, centers charge a fair price, including direct and indirect costs for the resource, according to University policy.

Because federal funding has decreased in recent years, Merritt said, business and industry partnerships will continue to increase.

“Not that sponsored research from industry will ever replace federal funding,” he said, “but it’s certainly an area that President [Eric] Kaler really wants to encourage faculty to get engaged in.”

A step between lab and factory

Large tanks and beakers fill the Biotechnology Resource Center carrying out fermentation and tests with microorganisms like bacteria and yeast.

The BRC is a point in between the lab and the factory for businesses and researchers to test out their biological processes in larger batches. The center recently ramped up its industry offerings, which now comprise 80 percent of its projects.

Business revenues can help “self-fund” the center by lowering the prices for University users, paying for preventative maintenance of the large, expensive equipment and even subsidizing the purchase of new machinery.

Director Tim Tripp said the BRC was founded more than 20 years ago, mainly to provide a resource for faculty members to test their research. Its expansion to industry was mostly because University graduates spread the word.

“All of these highly skilled, highly trained graduates who come out of here … remember the capabilities are here,” he said, “and are able, when they go out to their companies, to make connections back to the University.”

The center’s staff — five full-time employees and five undergraduate work-study students — has to plan projects carefully, Tripp said, because “microorganisms really don’t go home at the end of the night.”

Tripp said he likes the diversity of projects because the center gets to perform tests for different disciplines, from alternative fuels to drug supplements.

“Biotechnology is really a diverse endeavor,” he said. “It affects so many things different ways, and it’s really interesting to see how you can use microorganisms to … help solve problems.”

Making Minnesota buildings sustainable

When state officials are planning building remodels or new construction, they call the University’s Center for Sustainable Building Research to consult.

The Minnesota Legislature passed a bill in 2008 to make every state and publically funded building have zero carbon emissions by 2030, and it identified the CSBR as a resource to accomplish this.

Center Director John Carmody said this consultant status allows CSBR staff and researchers to advise University Facilities Management on constructing sustainable buildings at no cost to the University.

The CSBR receives most of its funding from state and federal grants, Carmody said, but a small portion of it comes from foundations or businesses.

Carmody said the center is advising Prospect Park residents about new construction and remodels, making them more sustainable.

“There’s a lot of benefits related to looking at a neighborhood as a whole,” he said, “that you don’t necessarily get if you’re just looking at individual buildings.”

The CSBR also works to make affordable housing more sustainable, a venture which is primarily funded by the McKnight Foundation.

“Our mission is really to make sure that the built environment is more sustainable,” Carmody said, “and we really do it by hitting all three of the elements of the University, which is research, teaching and outreach.”

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