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Capitalizing on U Technology
By Bill Catlin
August 21, 2000
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The University of Minnesota is launching an effort to commercialize promising University technologies by bridging the gap between entrepreneurs and academia. Amid worries that Minnesota has fallen behind in the high-tech, information-based economy, many observers say the University must play a central role in keeping Minnesota competitive.

Related Series
For an in-depth look at Minnesota's past prominence and future roles in the high-tech world, visit MPR's December 1999 series "Minnesota in the .com Age".
"WE CAN TAKE AND ADD not only text descriptions of what students are seeing, but we can add audio descriptions," says Rick Peifer, a University biologist who helps run the general biology program.

Peifer is showing off his baby - software that allows faculty members to enhance their lectures with a wide variety of teaching material, like this picture of an owl and the sound of its call, as well as 3D computer models, web pages, video - all compiled in a computer-based presentation.

The software is called UPresent, and it has some fans in the private sector. One company, Wacom Technology, includes the software free with one of its products, and flew Peifer to showcase UPresent at a trade show in January.

"We've had over 30,000 downloads since Mac World Expo in January just from our University site. And that's the only exposure we've really had," Peifer says.

Without the money or expertise to promote the product, Peifer says the best option is to give it away free. The University owns the rights to the software and stands to benefit if it were sold commercially. Peifer says the U.S. market for presentation software is estimated to reach $1 billion this year, and he feels UPresent has a good shot at competing for some of that. But Peifer said he feels like he has not gotten enough University support to realize the software's potential.

UPresent developer Rick Peifer. The manufacturer of the display/graphics tablet on the right bundles a free copy of UPresent with the display. (MPR Photo/Bill Catlin)
"It's been an uphill struggle. Quite Frankly. There are just bureaucratic hurdles to get our software out to the faculty within the University," Peifer said.

The University has a long established program to transfer technology from the lab to the marketplace, and spins out several companies each year. But Doug Johnson, of the University's Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, says he's seen a demand for more help. Johnson is developing a Technology Commercialization Center to help someone like Peifer find the people who can turn promising technologies into businesses. He says that now, entrepreneurs and investors tend to steer clear of the U.

"The rules are complicated to figure out. The bureaucracy is pretty intense. That combination together makes a lot of entrepreneurs say that they certainly wouldn't look here first. Which is what they should be doing," Johnson said.

Johnson says the program will help entrepreneurs navigate the U, and help academics in forming a company, a process that can be so daunting, some may not bother.

"It's sort of like they've got this little canoe and they're looking at the big ocean and they're saying, 'Holy Mackerel! I need somebody with a steamboat or something to hook this baby to, or I'm not gonna venture out in that, in that sea.'"

"The distance between the University and the business community and the investor community has grown over 20 years. It's not going to necessarily reverse itself overnight."

- Frank Bennett, venture capitalist
Research institutions like Stanford and MIT have played key roles in promoting high-tech regional economies that are the envy of other parts of the country. Johnson says other universities are devoting considerable effort and funding to programs designed to commercialize their technology. He's developing the Technology Commercialization Center with a $200,000 grant from Norwest Equity Partners, and projects an annual cost of $500,000, funded by an endowment and private sector members. Lyle Wray of the Citizens League, a public policy group, says the center would be an extremely valuable addition to the U.

"The University of Minnesota was early in developing things like web-browser-like software, early in developing e-mail-like software, and the commercialization happened in Illinois and California. Those are the kinds of concerns that a commercialization center would (look at and) say, 'Look, if we've got the knowledge here, let's make darn sure that the seeds are planted here, that then blossom into another Medtronic or another major technology firm, not elsewhere.'"

But the new effort is getting a lukewarm reception from at least one Venture Capitalist. Frank Bennett has criticized the U for a culture that generally disdains business, and he says the Technology Commercialization Center is not an instant fix.

"The distance between the University and the business community and the investor community has grown over 20 years. It's not going to necessarily reverse itself overnight."

Bennett says the center is a step in the right direction, but the U needs to build more bridges to the business and investor communities. University officials say they are doing that, and have a scheduled a fall seminar series for medical researchers featuring prominent entrepreneurs.