MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Developed at the University of Minnesota, the AIDS drug Ziagen will yield hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties for the school and the professor who invented it.
But for Minnesota business, the drug that's already benefited thousands of AIDS patients will yield nothing. No one in the state manufactures drugs on a massive scale, and so the license went to Glaxo Wellcome PLC, the British pharmaceutical giant.
As business, state and university leaders gather Wednesday at RiverCentre in St. Paul for a summit on Minnesota's economy, eyes will focus on the university as a source of ideas that can be transferred to Minnesota businesses.
While it still sees itself as a source of intellectual capital for the state, the university has invested more than $1.5 million in offices in the last year to help faculty members get research dollars and patents.
Seminars are being held for faculty members who might be interested in starting their own companies. In 1999-2000, 10 start-up companies based on technology developed at the university were established and 59 patents were issued for university inventions, many of them licensed to Minnesota businesses. More than 200 other discoveries were disclosed for possible patenting.
But those entrepreneurial instincts have limits.
"We are not business people and professors are not business people," said university President Mark Yudof. "All we can do is invest in the right (academic) areas and facilitate and so forth. We're not in charge of industrial planning in the state of Minnesota."
The challenge is to try to strike a balance between being financially savvy and protective of university inventions without letting commercial concerns unduly sway research.
"Our motive is to get technology out, get it used and create a public benefit," said Christine Maziar, university vice president for research. "We don't need to squeeze every dime out of every deal. But we don't want to be schmucks either."
Yudof, who proposed the summit, says the university can best give Minnesota an economic jump-start as a producer of an educated work force and a magnet for smart and creative people who may stay in the state. He admits that part of his motivation in proposing the summit is the university's interest, by helping to attract faculty.
Yudof also said the university is trying to make it easier for university innovation to move into the private sector. He said the university can take aim at problems that affect the state economy, such as diseases in crops and livestock.
But there are limits. Faculty members' research is shaped not only by the priorities of government funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation but by pure curiosity.
"Some people say we're not doing research in their area," Yudof said. "We need to be sensitive to that, but we can't do research in everybody's area. If a professor doesn't want to do it, it doesn't get done. ... People need to understand that."
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