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Dorgan: Research corridor a success

The Red River Valley's high-tech research corridor is taking off, and now it needs direction, U.S. Sen.

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The Red River Valley's high-tech research corridor is taking off, and now it needs direction, U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan said Friday.

Dorgan two years ago first pitched the idea of using the state's two largest universities as economic engines to attract research dollars and businesses to the region.

Friday, he met with 70 business, government and higher education officials at the North Dakota State University Alumni Center to chart a course for the future.

Dorgan suggested creating a statewide advisory group made up of private sector, academic and government leaders to set goals for the corridor.

"This isn't something we should just let happen," he said. "This is something we are going to make happen in a lot of ways, so it does require, I think, some organization."

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The suggestion found favor among both NDSU and University of North Dakota officials.

"There has to be an organizational structure that transcends who happens to be in what office at any given time," UND President Charles Kupchella said. "It's got to have some permanence to it."

As an example of the corridor's success, Dorgan and other officials pointed to the decision by California-based Alien Technology Corp. to build the world's first radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag manufacturing plant in the NDSU Research and Technology Park.

Alien picked Fargo over other sites, Dorgan said, because it was already conducting research with NDSU using federal dollars he earmarked through his seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, and because of financial incentives from the state.

"It is the model of what can and should happen in our future if we are aggressive," Dorgan said.

State Sen. Tony Grindberg, who also serves as executive director of the NDSU Research and Technology Park, said the corridor clearly has momentum.

"But from a marketing perspective, how can we position this ... to tell the world there's no better place to do high-quality research than in this corridor and in North Dakota?" he said.

The 2003 state Legislature spent $200,000 to market the corridor, and Kupchella said more money may be needed to support the corridor idea.

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"Because all of the dollars we can get a hold of, of course, we're putting into our own enterprises, trying to build them up," he said.

Gov. John Hoeven said building centers of excellence to anchor the corridor will take funding from federal and state sources, tuition and private businesses.

"Seventy percent of the research and development dollars provided by the federal government goes to private industry," he said. "So we've got to find ways to mine those dollars."

To do so, the state is working with Washington, D.C.-based New Economy Strategies, he said.

Dorgan also suggested UND and NDSU conduct a six-month joint study to identify research with the potential to spin off into commercial ventures.

NDSU President Joseph Chapman said the university is already working on such a study and has invited other schools to be a part of it. The research directors of UND and NDSU also meet regularly to compare research activities, he said.

While he agreed it would be worthwhile to sit down and explore a more structured corridor, Chapman said several entities, such as the Roundtable on Higher Education and the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), already address many research issues.

"Quite frankly, if you look at where we are compared to where we were, we're being spectacularly successful," he said.

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College and business officials from western North Dakota also said they don't want to be left out of the corridor.

Don Hedger, president of Killdeer Mountain Manufacturing Inc., said companies such as his benefit from any technology that universities can share.

KMM makes electronics for the aerospace industry. Currently, the company is working with Minot State University to develop a fiber-optic coating for aircraft hoses that uses light to detect wear and tear.

"We're starving for technology," Hedger said. "The more we can get from here out there, the greater the opportunities."

Dorgan's visit coincided with the fourth biennial North Dakota/South Dakota EPSCoR conference.

Established in 1986, EPSCoR helps states that traditionally don't receive a lot of research funding compete for federal dollars.

The U.S. government is the world's largest spender of research dollars, at nearly $1 billion a year, Dorgan said. Obtaining those research dollars can help North Dakota attract young people and battle the depopulation trend, he told about 350 academics, researchers and students who attended the conference.

"The fact is, where this research occurs has often become magnets for new industries and new jobs," he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528

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