Turning research into jobs

Author: Margaret Fosmoe, South Bend Tribune

Story originally posted in the South Bend Tribune on Tuesday, October 28, 2014 6:00 am | Updated: 10:39 am, Tue Oct 28, 2014.

Notre Dame can play vital role in reviving local economy


When the Rev. John I. Jenkins was inaugurated president of the University of Notre Dame in 2005, he declared that one of his goals was to create “one of the pre-eminent research institutions in the world.”

It was an ambitious aim, and one that could vastly benefit the South Bend area economy. Home cities of research universities often reap the benefits of large research grants, startup businesses and new jobs that research discoveries can generate. 

Nine years later, is Notre Dame living up to Jenkins’ promise?

From a dollars-and-cents perspective, the progress has been dramatic. In fact, the university’s research grants and spending have soared in the past decade. Total spending on research increased 140 percent over an eight-year period — from $73 million in fiscal year 2005 to $175.2 million in fiscal year 2013, according to data from the Association of University Technology Managers. 

The spending in 2013 placed Notre Dame in the top 25 percent among 67 U.S. research universities without medical schools that reported their totals. Universities with medical schools draw the highest amounts of federal research funding.

Spending is one thing; turning that money into patents and, eventually, jobs is another. And on that front, the numbers are far less dramatic:

• Notre Dame received six U.S. patents for its research in fiscal year 2005, according to the AUTM database. (The data is submitted by the universities.) Since then, the number has ranged from as low as 2 in 2009 to a high of 12 in 2013. By comparison, Princeton University reported 29 patents in 2013, and Rice University reported 53. Those two universities are in the same range as Notre Dame for research spending.

• Since 2005, the number of company startups based on Notre Dame research has ranged from zero to a high of 4 in 2012. 

• Notre Dame reported 35 active licenses based on research in 2013. (Universities make money from patents by licensing them to outside firms, which turn them into commercial products.) In comparison, Princeton reported 32 active licenses, and Rice reported 48.

Generating new companies with good-paying jobs in growing industries is critical to keeping graduates here, many of whom say job opportunities are the top factor in deciding whether to stay in South Bend. 

But part of the challenge in scoring Notre Dame is time. A movement to build up universities as tools of economic development began in the 1980s, well before ND jumped into the game in a big way.

As South Bend competes with other Rust Belt cities also seeking to reinvent themselves, judging the impact of the university’s efforts on the surrounding community will require patience.

“You’re going to need at least 20 years of data to get a clear sense of what’s happening,” said  Robert Rosenberg, a professor of entrepreneurship at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago and a founder of the Midwest Research University Network.

The best way to assess Notre Dame’s work is not by tracking patents, startups or research spending, Rosenberg argued, but by counting the local population.

“It’s the number of people who decide to stay there and settle down. If you can grow that knowledge-based community of creative people, that’s the strongest indication that your area is turning around,” he said.

For its part, Notre Dame sees research spending as an important area to track. The key is the ripple effect — people, jobs and spending in the community, said Richard Cox, director of technology transfer in the university’s Office of Research. The university benchmarks its research progress by comparing data on spending, but also factors such as licenses and invention disclosures, with that of about 50 other research universities.

“It’s attracting money and talent to the area that helps build the ecosystems,” he said.

Notre Dame is spending $115 million more per year on research than it did a decade ago, and much of that money goes into salaries for new researchers and their support staffs. That’s $115 million that otherwise wouldn’t be in the local economy, Cox said.

Getting help

Simply having an invention and a desire to commercialize it isn’t enough. A good idea still needs plenty of support. And a company with potential needs the right workers to thrive.

Matt Leevy, a Notre Dame research assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, is an example of how research at the university has the potential to be spun into jobs. Last year, he turned an invention into a startup firm, In Vivo Concepts LLC.  Leevy invented several devices that reduce the amount of stray anesthesia gas workers are exposed to in research laboratories that include work on mice and other small mammals.

Leevy said he found help and advice in abundance at Notre Dame.

“Any entrepreneur needs to keep in mind: How are you going to bring this product to market?” he said.

When Leevy began exploring the possibility of forming a startup, Notre Dame’s Office of Technology Transfer was ready with advice. Students in the university’s Entrepreneurship Masters Program (known as ESTEEM) helped prepare the documents that landed a provisional patent. Prototype funding came from the university’s Office of Research. Notre Dame Law School’s Intellectual Property & Entrepreneurship Clinic also provided help. The Innovation Postdoc program in the College of Science, designed to move research inventions toward commercial production, pitched in. MBA students helped develop a business plan.

Notre Dame senior Evan Doney, a chemical engineering major from Columbus, Ohio, started working in Leevy’s lab as a freshman. He’s completed tech-related summer internships in London and Scotland, and is considering what he’ll do after graduation in May. If the startup shows promise, he’ll consider staying in South Bend.

“If you can get a critical mass of people in their 20s and early 30s who are really interested in (tech development), that’s really important,” Doney said. 

How easy is it to keep college graduates in South Bend? Local students rated South Bend a 3.64, on a scale of 1 to 7, in a 2013 survey by the city of 3,500 students at eight area colleges. Employment was the No. 1 factor students said was important when it came to the possibility of staying here, followed closely by entertainment opportunities and safe neighborhoods.

Notre Dame junior Zach Waterson is a computer science major who grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, where his father is a venture capitalist. This past summer, he stayed in South Bend and worked as an intern for Growing the Faith, a startup firm founded at Innovation Park by a Notre Dame graduate. The firm developed and is marketing an app designed to keep Catholic parishes connected with their parishioners.

Many students arrive at Notre Dame with a mistaken perception about South Bend as a place with high crime and few amenities, Waterson said. “Most students don’t have an opportunity to explore the city,” he said.

Waterson said he found locally owned restaurants and other attractions that he never would have experienced if he didn’t spend a summer here. If the right opportunity comes along, he’ll consider working in South Bend for a year or two after he graduates in 2016.

“Innovation Park has been a great first step,” he said.

Signs of progress

Notre Dame can already boast about some high-profile successes.

Innovation Park, the university’s research park, opened its doors on Angela Boulevard five years ago. It now houses about 30 startup businesses. Every office is leased and just one laboratory space is available, park director Dave Brenner said. A donor is being sought to expand the building.

About half the tenants in Innovation Park are directly connected to Notre Dame — they use intellectual property that was developed on campus, for example, or the business owner has a professional relationship with a research professor.

Since the park opened, Brenner has noticed a greater emphasis on entrepreneurship among students, as well as faculty.

“When we started this five years ago, we knew there were a small number of faculty — maybe two or three or four — who were actively engaged in developing” business ventures, he said. “We can point to at least 52 that are working with ventures, either here or outside.”

Just this month, Notre Dame, General Electric, the city of South Bend and other partners broke ground on a $36 million turbomachinery research facility in Ignition Park, near downtown. It will be a national research and test site for jet turbine engine technology for aircraft, power plants, and the oil and gas industry. The project is expected to provide more than 50 high-paying jobs, but could spark others.

“We now have the capability of doing research and development on not only turbine manufacturing, but also for all the suppliers in that industry,” said Robert Bernhard, Notre Dame’s vice president for research. 

The university also plans to soon hire for a new position, vice president for business development.

Notre Dame doesn’t have to look far to see how other universities are succeeding. Purdue University and Indiana University, which both started their research-to-commercialization efforts long before Notre Dame, are showing encouraging results. Purdue research led to an average of almost eight new companies a year from 2000 to 2012, the Indianapolis Business Journal reported earlier this year. IU reported one startup in 2000 versus 13 in 2012, the journal reported.

South Bend officials are well aware of how important Notre Dame is to the city, and are working with the university to encourage startups at Innovation Park and help promising ones move into business space in Ignition Park or elsewhere.

South Bend has a strong legacy in manufacturing innovation. Being able to harness the knowledge generated at the university is key to the city’s growth, said Scott Ford, the city’s executive director of community investment.

“There are a lot of ideas generated at the university,” he said, “that can come to commercial reality and be made in South Bend.”