Moving America Forward

How The University of Minnesota Became an Incubator for Entrepreneurs

June 26, 2014
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How The University of Minnesota Became an Incubator for Entrepreneurs
Brian Moen via Flickr Creative Commons
The Twin Cities college has become one of the biggest public-research universities in the nation.

Icy temperatures come to mind more often than innovation when thinking about the University of Minnesota. But the Twin Cities-based school has spent the last decade ramping up efforts to commercialize research discoveries while producing dozens of patents and companies.

The 48,000-student campus has become one of the largest public-research universities in the nation, according to the National Journal, allowing entrepreneurs, public research and new and existing companies to thrive. The University of Minnesota Twin Cities (UMTC) UMTC ranked 14th nationally in higher education research-and-development spending in 2012 — more than the revered Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The school’s efforts has led to an $8 billion economic impact on the metropolitan area each year, university officials said, but that’s hardly its ripple effect. That estimate excludes the impact of research discoveries across the country. In fact, since 2007, university research has produced 65 companies. Last year alone, UMTC filed 148 patents on behalf of professors and students.

One successful example is that of Jian-Ping Wang, a Minnesota professor who owns three companies and 39 patents. The Chinese immigrant has lived in Minnesota since 2002, working as a member of the electrical- and computer-engineering department.

Minnesota’s Office for Technology Communication (OTC) makes it easy for entrepreneurs like Wang to contact to see if technology has enough commercial promise and is new enough to file for a patent or an intellectual-property disclosure. While most research universities operate a similar office, Minnesota’s OTC employs people with both business and science acumen as well as runs a startup incubator.

“Everyone in our office has come from industry, which is unique. And we run this like a company,” says Jay Schrankler, a former manufacturing executive who runs OTC.

The Venture Center, the startup incubator, recruits a “CEO-in-residence” for entrepreneurs like Wang who are busy with day jobs. These CEOs take over newfangled companies while innovators like Wang can stay on in an advisory role or hold equity.

“We talk a lot about start-up companies, but that’s only about 10 percent of our activity here. The other 90 percent are other existing companies that license our technology,” Schrankler said.

According to Scrhankler, when he first began at UMTC in 2007, there were 193 invention disclosures, or the step prior to patent applications. Last year the campus saw 331.

More recently, the university launched the Minnesota Innovation Partnerships (MN-IP), which gives companies seeking university research the exclusive rights to any patents or intellectual property that results in the study. Minnesota welcomed 41 of these type of partnerships last year. Though much of the university’s research is still funded by federal grants — 70 percent — budget cuts in federal spending has forced Minnesota to get creative with corporate partnerships.

As the university begins seeking out more partnership opportunities, it continues to expand its network of leaders and businesses in both the public and private sector. It’s no secret that research universities can create jobs, but investing in an entrepreneurial-driven program like UMTC’s will be a model that more schools can look to as public funding dwindles.

MORE: Why It Took A Plea From A Pizza Guy to Increase Michigan’s Higher Education Funding

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