Letter: Research funding helps North Dakota win

UND President Mark Kennedy

We all like to win. With the Super Bowl around the corner and the Vikings out of contention, I may record the game and watch the highlights, fast forwarding until play is in what they call the red zone in football, the last 20 yards. These are clearly the most exciting parts of every game. One is tempted to believe that the most important variable for winning is whether you get a touchdown, field goal or no score when in the red zone. Yet, careful analysis will likely show the more important variable is how many times you get in the red zone to have a chance to score. The same is true with launching new ventures.

In my conversations in tandem with the North Dakota business community and North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani, I find discussions of research quickly gravitate to commercialization and understandably so. To be less subject to cycles of commodity feast and famine and ensure that digitization will not leave the state behind, we must diversify the economy. There is little debate that startups emerging from university research are wildly more successful than those unattached to university research.

All startups are risky. A recent study suggests that only 68 percent of university startups survive 10 years, only 25 percent attract venture capital and only 8 percent develop to the point of resulting in an initial public offering of stock. Yet that is 3.5 times, 25 times and 114 times more likely, respectfully, than those three positive outcomes occurring if startups are not connected with university research.

There is a great desire to skip over the first 80 yards and just pick ideas when they are in the red zone. Yet, North Dakota’s larger challenge is that we do not have enough ideas in the red zone. The State New Economy Index shows that, although North Dakota is in the top 10 states in startups, it’s generally near the bottom in measures of whether those startups are fast growing, attracting venture capital or developing to the point they can offer stock. That’s because the state ranks near the bottom in discoveries and discoverers.

Like a wide receiver hunting for an opening where they can catch the ball and advance downfield, so it goes with research. Because Dr. Marc Basson, of the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences, hunted for opportunities to expand clinical research unique to the state, he caught a $20.5 million grant. New technologies are emerging that are impacting who wins in not just health care, agriculture and energy, but also UAS and autonomous technologies. We need more discoverers like Basson at North Dakota universities, hunting to bring more federal and corporate resources to generate discoveries.

UND is hiring six digital scientists with the explicit understanding that they need to hunt for funds to advance their own research and the team that supports them. Including graduate and undergraduate students on these teams cultivates talent in new technologies vital for the state’s workforce. Adding the digital scientists to our mix of current professors will bear many positive fruits for UND and the state. UND will give them time to attract outside funds, but their compensation depends on results after the first couple of years.

More such investments are needed to hire hunters and provide seed funds to attract outside funding and to match outside funding when necessary. This will generate ideas that spark enterprises and the talent critical for the state to succeed in an increasingly digital future. Added state funding for research coupled with clear expectations for such funding to continue -- just as UND is requiring of newly hired researchers -- is an essential step for future economic prosperity.

Legislative leadership has signed onto Sen. Ronald Sorvaag’s Senate Bill 2282, written to provide funding on such terms. SB 2282 will enable North Dakota’s research universities to bring more federal and corporate dollars into the state to fund research which, in turn, will advance more ideas in the red zone, more discoveries with the chance of being commercialized and more essential talent for state employers. Without such funding, too few ideas will get to the red zone with any chance of scoring and the state will have less high-tech talent to advance red-zone ideas to the end zone. With SB 2282, UND and NDSU are poised to help North Dakota compete in the economic Super Bowl by fueling a more diverse and vibrant economy for the state.