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U of M research center in Willmar offers a 'tremendous opportunity'

Dr. Robert Jones, senior vice president at the University of Minnesota. Tribune photo by Anne Polta

WILLMAR -- A University of Minnesota research and outreach center, slated to open this fall on the MinnWest Technology Campus, could help move Minnesota's burgeoning technology industry to the next level.

The initiative offers "a tremendous opportunity" for basic and applied research in promising areas such as renewable energy and poultry health, said Dr. Robert Jones, senior vice president for system academics and administration at the University of Minnesota.

"We think that this is a very innovative and strategic opportunity," Jones told a local audience Wednesday at a biobusiness forum co-hosted by the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission and the MinnWest Technology Campus.

Becoming the site of the U of M's new Mid-Central Research and Outreach Center is viewed by local officials as a major accomplishment for the 5-year-old technology campus, as well as for regional economic development.

"The environment for success is here," Steve Renquist, executive director of the Kandiyohi County and Willmar EDC, told the three dozen people who gathered at the technology campus Wednesday morning for the forum.

The research and outreach center will include a biosciences laboratory and outreach center where academic and industry scientists can explore ideas, solve problems and bring new products to the marketplace. A multidisciplinary avian research center will focus on disease prevention in the poultry industry.

There will be a renewable energy program for exploring wind and biomass energy sources and production.

Educational programs will address work force development with customized training, professional development and opportunities for college students to do internships and research projects that help prepare them for careers in the life sciences.

The University of Minnesota Extension, the so-called front door to U of M resources, also will relocate to the tech campus facility when it opens later this year.

Many observers believe the life sciences are poised to have the same impact as the computer in revolutionizing American society.

The challenge is to connect researchers and the academic world with the private sector and its ability to commercialize knowledge, said Jim Sieben, president of the MinnWest Technology Campus.

"Businesses have a lot of great ideas, but we do have gaps in what we have for capabilities," he said.

The resources of the Mid-Central Research and Outreach Center will help close this gap, Sieben said. Once the facility opens, it'll be "like walking across the street," he said.

National statistics show that the bioscience, technology and life sciences industries in Minnesota are poised for growth after stagnating in the late 1990s. Some of the most recent figures, from 2007, indicate that while the medical devices industry continues to dominate the scene, there also has been expansion in the pharmaceutical sector.

The statistics suggest that Minnesota's industry profile is beginning to change, said Dale Wahlstrom, president and chief executive of LifeScience Alley and the BioBusiness Alliance of Minnesota.

"We're at a stage of time when the life sciences are growing," he said.

The agribiology and bioindustry sectors are lagging, however, and account for the smallest slice of the pie, Wahlstrom said. The reasons for this aren't clear, but at least two possibilities are that ideas aren't being developed within the state or research somehow isn't being commercialized, he said. "We're missing that knowledge base, for some reason."

Jones said the U of M envisions the research and outreach center as a new model for the university to become more deeply engaged with Minnesota communities and partners in the private sector.

Its location on the technology campus, while promising, doesn't guarantee success, he said. For that, it will take two-way partnerships and the ability to find common ground and common goals, he said.

University officials believe, however, that the research center will be able to meet all its goals. "This is a labor of love for many of us," Jones said.