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Technology park to feed innovation

MU’s new area will let high-tech companies tap university research to develop new products and boost Columbia’s economy.
Tuesday, October 4, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:30 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

One day in the foreseeable future, people will be able to stop at businesses south of Columbia to buy soybeans genetically altered to help prevent cancer and ice that can freeze at 74 degrees Fahrenheit.

Maybe there will also be artificial or cultured limbs and skin. Maybe there will be non-toxic anti-freeze.

These products are among the visions for MU’s first technology park, a cluster of high-tech companies planned for 58 acres the university owns along U.S. 63.

It will be part of South Farm, more than 1,400 acres dedicated mainly to agricultural research ­— there are soybean and corn fields, swine, cows and poultry.

Patterned after other technology or research parks at universities across the country, MU’s technology park will seek to marry research under way at the university with community entrepreneurs. The idea behind technology parks is to transfer the research into products in order to build viable businesses, create jobs and bolster economic development.

Technology parks, such as those at Iowa State University or Purdue University, have been common at other research universities for the past 15 years.

“Typically, an idea out of the university, patented or not patented, needs a business plan, financing and management to bring it to market, and that’s when an entrepreneur comes in,” said John Gardner, who was recently named vice president for research and economic development, a new position in the University of Missouri System.

“We’re working hard to create an investment culture to nurture good ideas early on and help grow our own businesses,” Gardner said. “Typically, professors don’t have the type of capital or experience to advance the idea through marketing and production.”

With a strengthening research capability and major investments in place, such as the recently built Life Sciences Center, MU is now positioned to act on concepts that have been realized at other universities or talked about at MU and in the community for about 15 years, said Jake Halliday, president and chief executive officer of the Missouri Innovation Center. The nonprofit center works for regional economic development by forming and expanding new ventures.

Halliday, project leader of the “incubator initiative,” will direct the park’s business incubator, serving as a link between the business community and the university.

“In this case, Columbia is not a typical college town,” Halliday said. “A typical college town today already did their incubator strategy and a technology park for graduating companies years ago and, in consequence, have literally dozens of high-technology companies and thousands of high-technology, private sector jobs in their economic mix.”

There is no estimate on construction costs for the technology park yet, but its incubator, where research ideas will be tested for market viability, is estimated at $8.7 million. The incubator will link professors and researchers with entrepreneurs and technology-based industries. It will be located near MU’s Research Reactor off South Providence Road.

The organizers — a mix of people in the university and the private sector — are $2.1 million short to begin construction but expect to raise the money before the end of 2005. After all of the money is raised, the incubator is estimated to be operating within 15 months.

An incubator not only tests ideas, it provides mentoring on how to start the business.

“It does just that — takes faculty ideas and incubates them so they’re viable for the community,” Gardner said. “An incubator takes an egg and if it’s fertile, it will spawn life. This will incubate ideas to see if they’re viable for a business.”

The incubation process screens companies before investment to prevent failures, said Steve Carter, director of the Iowa State University Research Park, who has worked with the park for 10 years.

Rusty Sutterlin, a chemical engineering professor at MU, plans to take advantage of the incubator’s resources as the co-founder and chief executive officer of Renewable Alternatives. As a small company, Renewable Alternatives doesn’t have a full-time accounting team, which the incubator services can provide.

The company finds new uses for products made from fats and oils, and it finds more energy-efficient ways to use old and new technology. One product Renewable Alternatives has commercialized is thermal energy storage devices, such as ice that can freeze at 74 degrees Fahrenheit instead of 32 degrees. This can be used in walls, furniture, clothing and coffee mugs.

“Coffee is too hot for most people to drink after it’s poured, so we can develop a coffee cup that draws the heat from the coffee to the optimal temperature and then releases the heat back into the coffee as it cools,” Sutterlin said.

Sutterlin’s office is in Engineering Building North at MU until the incubator and technology park are constructed.

Several factors have kept MU from developing a technology park, Halliday said. First, the university must accumulate more than $200 million per year in research investments to support a research or technology park. He said MU has been edging toward this for the past three to five years.

“Number two, we have support of the university administration, and Dr. Floyd has also shown particular leadership on the university’s role in economic development,” Halliday said, referring to UM President Elson Floyd. “The university also has to have policies supportive of entrepreneurship.”

Halliday said that when, in the past, there was a potential for a conflict of interest between being a university researcher or professor and starting a business, the response from MU was, “Don’t you dare do that.” Now, however, such interests might be outweighed by the public’s interest — in the good the product or the company brings.

With models from other universities, such as Iowa State, Halliday said MU’s late entrance to the technology park industry could be a benefit.

“This isn’t new, so it’s low risk and we know it works — it drives the economy,” Halliday said. And, knowing what mistakes have been made, MU’s technology park can leapfrog ahead.

Gardner said the history of technology and research parks shows they are net revenue gainers and help to drive the economy. This has held true for Iowa State and its community of Ames, said Carter, the park director.

“A significant rule is the economics part we have at this point — more than 300,000 square feet of commercial space is all utilized by technology organizations and those organizations employ about 700 people,” Carter said.

“Those wages multiply through the community,” he said. “Finally, we do pay property taxes, which collectively amount to about $800,000 a year.”

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