By nearly every measure, 2014 was a banner year for research at the University of Minnesota.
It increased its take from the all-important federal grants. It churned out more start-ups and licensing agreements for its discoveries. And it broke into the top tier of a prestigious index of America's public research universities for the first time.
"We have a great story to tell about the success of the University of Minnesota research engine," Dr. Brian Herman, the U's vice president of research, told the Board of Regents recently.
The Center for Measuring University Performance, based at Arizona State University, apparently agrees. A report that will be released in two weeks places the U among the top 25 public research universities based on nine criteria, including total research, National Academy members, faculty awards, doctorates awarded and postdoctoral appointees.
The U's research funding and commercialization activities in 2014 portends continued success, Herman said.
"If you look at the amount of funding that many of the federal agencies had — which is the largest percentage of our budget for research — we captured about a 2.4 percent increase from the previous year. The agencies' budgets went up only 1.1 percent," Herman said in an interview. "So in my mind, that means we were really quite competitive."
Herman cited the works of several researchers as examples of the U's success.
Susan Galatowitsch heads the department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology and oversees an $8.7 million state grant to advance aquatic invasive species research.
Vipin Kumar, who heads the U's Computer Science and Engineering Department, spearheaded a project using satellite imagery to examine changes in forest cover to track climate change and its effects.
"His project alone leveraged approximately $13 million in external funding," Herman told the regents.
The Star Tribune analyzed the U's research awards from 2005 through 2014, adjusting the totals for inflation to reflect constant 2014 dollars.
The U landed $740.6 million in research funds last year, up 5.4 percent from 2013. It's still less than what the U secured in 2010, but that year's total of $891 million included stimulus funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), which was passed to help bring the country out of the recession.
By design, the stimulus awards tapered from $142.3 million in 2010 to $600,000 last year. Excluding ARRA grants, the U's peak year was 2012, at nearly $768 million. Last year was down 1.2 percent from five years ago, but up 9 percent over the decade.
"It's kind of like the stock market. You'd kind of like to see, over time, a continued positive slope moving forward," Herman said. "The news in 2014 is encouraging because we're becoming especially competitive with respect to the amount of available funding."
Going to market
Patent filings at the U were up 165 percent since 2008. New licenses were up 144 percent. Outgoing material transfer agreements, which protect the U's intellectual property rights when sharing its research products with other universities, were up 330 percent. Revenue generating agreements were up nearly 53 percent. And the U spun off 15 start-ups, up from just 2 in 2008.
Jian-Ping Wang, a physicist in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, is one of the more prolific inventors. His work as resulted in 39 patents and three start-up companies.
"Preliminary numbers for the first quarter of 2015 looks like that trend is continuing to be very strong," Herman said. "So I'm really happy that, in my view, as a university we are competing extremely well in the national landscape."
Despite the positive trend lines, the U's gross revenues from its intellectual property commercialization activities slid 71 percent from $95.3 million in 2008 to $27.4 million in 2014. But that's largely because of an expiring patent agreement with GlaxoSmithKline for Ziagen (abacavir sulfate), a drug used to treat HIV/AIDS.
Herman said that while it's nice to have major one-time successes like Ziagen, it's equally important to boost the researchers' overall performance.
Anticipating the decline in Glaxo revenues, the U started programs designed to stimulate public-private entrepreneurship and technology commercialization. Non-Glaxo revenues rose 170 percent, from $8.7 million in 2008 to $23.4 million last year, according to the Star Tribune's analysis.
Herman said the U has several prospects "in the pipeline" with potential for big paydays in the next few years, though he said he couldn't provide details yet.
"We're continuing to look for these big opportunities but at the same time we're not ignoring kind of building a much more broader baseline, which tend to be smaller accomplishments but nonetheless are going in the right direction," he said.
To generate more entrepreneurship, the U is trying to "promote a culture of serendipity," a kind of cross-fertilization among different disciplines, Herman told the regents. When a professor, student or staff member gets the idea for an invention, they file a form that the U evaluates for potential research. Those forms were up 58 percent from 217 in 2008 to 343 in 2014.
The U also streamlined the process for business and industry to work with its researchers in a program called MN-IP, short for Minnesota Innovation Partnerships Program. MN-IP agreements shot up from 14 in 2012 to 51 last year.
Herman said the program has been coined the "Minnesota Method" and is being copied by a number of other universities around the country.