Betsy Lulfs fought for years for the creation of a state-funded organization that would focus on stimulating science and technology jobs in Minnesota. Now she will head the newly created entity.
Betsy Lulfs remembers being asked by two retired 3M physicists what her technical background was.
They were looking for impressive scientific credentials, since Lulfs worked in what would become the state's Office of Science and Technology.
But the truth is, Lulfs didn't have any, so she cracked a joke.
To have all the technical knowledge she would need on the job, "I would have to be that close to God," Lulfs said. "My feeling is my not being technically trained opens me up to think of new opportunities for you."
Lulfs isn't a scientist, but for the last four years, she pushed legislators to be more proactive in creating an organization that would help science and technology companies find federal and state funding and map out a strategic plan for these industries in Minnesota.
The Legislature approved the entity last month, and Lulfs will serve as executive director of the newly created Minnesota Science and Technology Authority.
Supporters say the authority has the potential to create more science and technology jobs in Minnesota and propel the state as a leader in the field. Minnesota in recent years has lost some start-ups to other states and dropped in rankings of some economic indicators.
Some officials have expressed fear that the state is alarmingly close to losing its edge in science and technology.
"We have all these legacy companies here, yet [for] the small businesses there wasn't a support system to help them through the technology growth and commercialization. How do we get them through the valley of death?" Lulfs said.
The authority will be modeled after similar groups established in competing states. The Ohio Third Frontier, for example, got started began in 2003 and receives $140 million to $150 million a year funded through state bond money. The group claims to have directly created more than 9,500 science and technology jobs as more than 600 companies were created, attracted to the state or received capital from 2003 to 2009.
State Sen. Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury, said the Minnesota entity is important to staying competitive with other states. She added that rankings which showed Minnesota dropping in a few economic indicators in recent years were a "wake-up call."
"We absolutely have to fan a little bit to create a stronger flame," said Saltzman, who pushed for the authority's creation. "We have to take better care of our emerging companies. This is a first step."
Still, people who work with Minnesota entrepreneurs acknowledge that achieving this goal will be a challenge because funding is tight. The authority would need money to help provide state financial assistance to emerging companies.
"Budgets are tough all over, in Washington and in every state in the union," said Dan Carr, CEO of the Collaborative, a group that links entrepreneurs with investors. "They are going to be tough here."
The authority's budget now is coming through the Office of Science and Technology. After the authority's first year, the plan is for the group's 18-member advisory commission to present a strategic plan to the Legislature and figure out how large of a budget they will need. The commission will be made up of representatives from industry, academia and the financial world.
Helping lead the commission's discussions will be Lulfs. But she isn't your typical technology executive; she has a bachelor's degree in marketing, with an emphasis on fashion merchandising and a master's in technical writing. Still, Lulfs said she's always been fascinated by science and technology.
"I tell my nieces and nephews that there is always an opportunity to re-create yourself, and that's a great thing," Lulfs said. "If I can't intellectually work in a world that I passionately love, then how can I assist in helping those that can do that? Everyone has a gift that they bring to the table."
People who have worked with Lulfs said she has a knack for finding grant money and putting people at ease, even though she came to Minnesota as an outsider. She grew up on a farm in Ohio and previously worked for a program there that distributed federal grants to small businesses.
In her role, Lulfs diversified the state's pursuit of National Institutes of Health grants into areas such as defense-related grants, said Patricia Neuman, a former med-tech economic development specialist who worked with Lulfs.
"She's just done a brilliant job in a very short time frame, with very little resources on her own," Neuman said. "People in the industry just embraced her."
Lulfs also has a sense of humor and has referenced cartoons in meetings and presentations. In a presentation on why start-ups should consider federal grants, she showed a Foghorn Leghorn cartoon to illustrate her point.
"The ability to bring humor to a situation helps level the playing field for everyone in the room," Lulfs said. "It relaxes the environment and cuts down the tension."
Lulfs said she's up for the challenge to be executive director. Growing up on a farm, Lulfs said, she and her brothers were used to doing all sorts of chores, from putting shingles on the roof to cleaning up manure. There was no such thing as gender discrimination, Lulfs said.
Her mother would say, "If you have a brain and two hands, you can do anything," Lulfs said.
Wendy Lee • 612-673-1712