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The Politechs of Innovation: Putting Weight Behind Idaho's Tech Industry 

Idaho state government gets in the R&D business

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"All the money stays inside the education system, but the business gets the direct benefit of it because you're solving technical issues that they actually have, not something that some faculty member dreamed up in their head," he said. "Let's be solving business problems, not creating something we don't have a clue on."

What's more, Ritter added, it would be wiser for support to go where the start-ups already live.

"Ninety percent of all the start-ups in the state have nothing to do with the universities," he said. "Are we making an investment in 10 percent of the marketplace to somehow get higher returns? ... I understand the need to have research, but saying you're going to invest in university research and it's going to result in more start-ups--there's no evidence for that."

Bill Connors, president and CEO of the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce, said what matters most is that IGEM is based on a good formula.

"My impression is that it doesn't happen very often, but when you can get business, government and higher ed together, it's a good thing," he said. "It's not a lot of money but the formula is good. ... If we can expand on that with more money in the future, great, but I think it's a step in the right direction. Higher ed has been taking a hit over the past couple of years, so reversing that trend is a good thing."

Midgley, meanwhile, admits that the amount of start-up activity generated by Idaho university research has been limited, but counters that it's a matter of perspective.

"When you look at our track record here in Idaho and you look at the amount of activity that we've generated based on the amount of dollars that we've spent, I think we've done as well as anybody and as well as can be expected," he said.

"The truth is that the research and development dollars spent in Idaho are historically on the low end. That's the reason you have not seen dozens or scores of start-ups spilling out of our universities and our national lab--in part the reason for that is the number of dollars being spent in the past."

Even with an upswing in funding for university research--and a $1 million slated for direct support to start-ups--Midgley urges caution when it comes to expectations.

"We are not expecting to invest $10 today and see a return of $20 by the end of the year," he said. "In order to have that kind of activity, you need to make a significant investment, and like any investment, you have to understand and expect that not every dollar spent in R&D is going to have immediate return--that's the nature of making those investments. They're forward thinking and they require risk and some of them will fail. ...

"It only takes one blockbuster drug that comes out of your chemistry department to generate millions and millions of dollars in licensing fees," he added. "That one success can cover the nine other losses. IGEM is a good first step."

Baby steps

While the idea for IGEM was born of collaboration between members of the Idaho Technology Council, now that it's a reality, the baton has been passed to the IGEM Council--a new 12-member group that replaces the former Idaho Innovation Council.

Operating under the Department of Commerce, IGEM Council members will be appointed by Otter and, according to a Commerce Department spokesperson Megan Ronk, a prospective membership list is being compiled for consideration by the governor, with a final roster planned to be announced in the next few weeks. Once the membership is finalized, the group will start establishing its meeting schedule and rules.

"Our goal is to ensure the committee gets up and running and writing rules for the program as quickly as possible so we can get the parameters of the grants established and start getting some of those funds out there," said Ronk. Though still fluid, IGEM's structure is three-fold: The IGEM Council will oversee and make final decisions related to the program, with Commerce administering the $1 million innovation grant, and the $2 million pile of university research funds managed by the Higher Education Research Council.

According to Midgley, who is also a member of HERC, the council sent out requests for proposals to the state's universities, and several projects have already been submitted for funding, though details are not yet available.

"The walls are starting to come up around this thing and it's very exciting," Midgley said. "It's absolutely happening and we've received some significant proposals. Very forward-looking, very innovative. Within the next few weeks, certainly by mid-summer, I believe those funds will be awarded."

Rudin is similarly enthused about IGEM.

"I can't be more supportive of IGEM. It really was a visionary step by the governor to propose this and the Legislature to do a lot of great work to take the necessary steps to implement it," he said.

"It's a beginning, and we need to be in this for the long haul. I think it's really initially about capacity building: recruiting and bringing in talent, setting the stage to do bigger and better things. There are different types of deliverables. If we can bring in some good talent to augment the talent we have, that's a good thing."

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