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Amy A. Whitney: Research vital to commercialization success

By Amy A. Whitney

As a proud new resident of North Dakota and director of the UND Center for Innovation, I was honored to participate in the legislative process on Jan. 21 at the capitol in Bismarck. I was able to testify before the House Committee on Industry, Business and Labor regarding House Bill 1333, the creation of a legacy innovation fund to support technology advancement; and Senate Bill 2282, to diversify North Dakota's economy through research grants to the state's two research universities, UND and North Dakota State University.

Here's a few examples why I believe these bills are well-timed and would be courageous strategic investments in North Dakota.

First, UND's groundbreaking work in beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) technologies is leading the nation in UAS innovation, and new commercialization opportunities are still being discovered. Mark Askelson, executive director at UND's Research Institute for Autonomous Systems (RIAS), accurately states that UND birthed BVLOS research, and I am confident this work will transform aviation and other industries while further diversifying economic opportunity in North Dakota. The Center for Innovation's University Center for Autonomous Systems, RIAS and other local and statewide partners are energized and poised to create these new opportunities.

Second is the important research under way at the Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) at UND, which benefits all of North Dakota, particularly in the western part of the state. New uses for rare earth elements in coal, carbon-capture technology and more efficient ways to extract oil from shale formations deep in the Bakken are three emerging innovations, which, given additional time and resources, will become enormous marketing opportunities for the EERC to demonstrate its leadership as an energy innovator.

Third, the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences (SMHS), is now part of a new biomedical technology transfer accelerator hub called the Sustainable Heartland Accelerator Regional Partnership (SHARP), a collaboration with the Center for Innovation and the UND Division of Research & Economic Development. This five-year project will build relationships, develop training and mentorship networks and significantly increase commercialization pathways for biomedical research. Research conducted at the SMHS in epigenetics, cancer, infectious disease, neuroscience and rural health could have tremendous benefits for North Dakota and medical innovation beyond our state.

Innovation and entrepreneurship are a continuum and should be considered holistically to increase success. Innovation is about finding new solutions, ideas and opportunities to make incremental and/or disruptive change before commercialization. One generates ideas often through numerous years of research, experience, curiosity and a willingness to combine different things to create something new.

The information age is upon us. Innovation and entrepreneurial activity is a fact of life if any industry hopes to survive, or better yet thrive. Entrepreneurship is the action-oriented, commercialization-focused work of the innovation process. Entrepreneurship is risky. However, university-based startups are 8 percent more likely to succeed, 25 percent more likely to receive venture capital and 68 percent more likely to still be in business after 10 years compared to non-University startups.

I strongly support commercialization based on discovery, intellectual property and inventions. It's the heart and soul of what we do every day at the Center for Innovation. During my 10-plus years supporting innovators and entrepreneurs, I have helped people think creatively to identify new ideas and make tangible products, services and businesses.

Today's Innovator author Aaron Prioretti argues that innovation should be nurtured as a competency rather than an outcome. In North Dakota, if we hope to nurture innovation and entrepreneurism as competencies rather than outcomes, it is essential that SB 2282 and HB 1333 move forward so our research universities, innovators and entrepreneurs can create new ideas, identify discoveries and have additional resources to investigate how their research can become tangible products, services or businesses in North Dakota and beyond.

Mahatma Gandhi said "action expresses priorities." SB 2282 supports innovation, research and creative activity at the two research universities. HB 1333 focuses on supporting entrepreneurial activity to bring ideas to market. Together, they are a comprehensive investment in and commitment to diversifying North Dakota's economy. The bills significantly enhance the state's ability to nurture innovation and augment the entrepreneurial ecosystem for economic opportunity.

Amy A. Whitney is director of the UND Center for Innovation.