Utah encourages and funds Tech Transfer for sustainable Economic Development

Conly Hansen acknowledges the idea of creating high-paying jobs in Utah by transforming pig and cow waste into electricity sounds a little far-fetched.

By Lesley Mitchell
The Salt Lake Tribune

But Hansen, professor at Utah State University in Logan, believes his new company, created after nearly three decades of research into agricultural waste, could someday be a large employer.

He is not alone in his enthusiasm.

State economic developers believe Hansen’s project and 14 others have strong potential for job creation.

The projects developed at USU, the University of Utah and Brigham Young University have been selected to receive $1.8 million in grant money starting July 1 through Utah’s Centers of Excellence program.

The program aims to help university research projects develop into successful companies, a task program managers say has become more difficult in recent years due to budget constraints.

Created by the Legislature in 1986, the Centers of Excellence program initially received more than $3 million annually, with hopes of seeing its funding grow over time. The annual amount allocated to the program has instead dropped to about $2 million.

As a result, the program cannot fund many projects deserving of funding, said Michael Keene, state science adviser. "It’s really unfortunate."

The goal therefore is to fund only those centers that have the best chance of developing into viable companies within five years, he said.

Part of the $200,000 the program spends annually on administrative costs goes to hire commercialization consultants who work with university professors to develop their research into companies. To supplement the work of those consultants, the state last year enlisted the help of a group of master’s of business administration students at the University of Utah to study an individual center’s prospects.

Keene said he soon will enlist the help of MBA students at other schools as well.

He said students this year will analyze six to eight centers that are asking for money through the Centers of Excellence program. Keene said students will ponder whether these research projects deserve funding, and if they do, the students will suggest ways for the companies to develop and market their ideas.

In addition to enlisting the help of the MBA candidates, the state and individual centers continue to aggressively try to find matching funds to supplement state money, Keene said.

In the 2001-2002 fiscal year, the 16 centers that were funded were able to secure matching funds of $20.5 million — a ratio of 11 to 1.

Over the past 16 years, the program, which has funded Utah companies such as genetics researcher Myriad Genetics and digital hearing aid maker Sonic Innovations, has led to the creation of 150 Utah companies, 179 patents and 204 license agreements.

A 1999 study by the State Science and Technology Institute, an Ohio nonprofit organization that tracks technology-based economic development programs, said Utah’s Centers of Excellence program is one of the most poorly funded programs, yet one of the most effective.

The state estimates about 1,300 people are employed by companies that received assistance through the program; those employees earned an average wage of $68,000.

But like any program that aims to develop early-stage companies, the Centers of Excellence program has also had its flops.

One of the highest profile failures was FlashGril’d Steak, a restructured beefsteak product developed at USU’s Center of Excellence for Meat-Processing Technology. Collectively, the state, federal government and beef industry invested more than $3 million to fund development of the product, marketed as a low-fat alternative to chicken.

USU researchers developed equipment that separated meat from fat and connective tissues, mechanically tenderized it and placed it in a vacuum tumbler, where fat or flavoring could be added before the meat was pressed into portions. The meat was then seared with grill marks before being frozen.

In late 1997, the company formed to use the technology, Agri-Products Inc., opened a Salt Lake City manufacturing plant that employed 25 people. But less than one year later the company shut down its plant.

While research projects funded by the Centers of Excellence program are diverse, their common bond is technology. Hansen, for example, has spent much of his career developing technology that aims to transform agricultural waste — either from animals or food processing — into something useful.

One primary focus of his 3-year-old Center of Excellence, Profitable Uses of Agricultural Byproducts, is developing a method to process hog-farm waste to create methane gas and in turn, electricity. His research has led to the formation of HEE (which stands for Hansen Energy & Environmental) LLC in Logan.

Hansen said funding from the Centers of Excellence program has been crucial in helping him develop nearly three decades of research into a company.

HEE will soon test its process at a northern Utah hog farm to see whether it’s economical and profitable.

Consultants have already deemed HEE a strong candidate to develop into a viable, growing company, he said, but he is eager to see his research tested at a real farm.

"I feel like everything is coming together," he said.

University of Utah professor Andy Hong hopes his new center, In Situ Ozonator for Sediment Remediation, has strong job-employment potential as well. Hong and partner Don Hayes, another associate professor, have developed a chemical and biological process that breaks down pollutants. They have also designed equipment that would be used at the site of the contamination. "We’re hoping to establish a company that would start with several engineers and grow from there," Hong said.

[email protected]


Centers of Excellence Funds Recipients

The University of Utah Centers of Excellence receiving funds are:

* Acoustic Cooling Technology, which develops cooling devices for use in computers and other electronic products, $95,000.

* Electronic Medical Education, which develops software for physicians to share information via the Internet, $150,000.

* Global Knowledge Management, which develops software, $115,000.

* Homogeneous DNA Analysis, which develops a method of analyzing DNA samples, $150,000.

* In Situ Ozonator for Remediation, which develops equipment used in the cleanup of contaminated waterways, $110,000.

* Petroleum Research, which develops ways to make oil and gas production more efficient, $105,000.

* Representation of Multi-Dimensional Information, a software developer, $150,000.

* Titanium Boride Surface Hardening, which develops harder and more durable devices for aerospace, biomedical and industrial markets, $75,000.

Utah State University Centers are:

* Advanced Imaging Laser Detection and Ranging, which develops computerized color-imaging systems, $140,000.

* High-speed Information Processing, a hardware and software developer, $145,000.

* Profitable Uses of Agricultural Byproducts, which develops technology to treat animal waste, $125,000.

* Smart Sensors, which develops products with sensors for a variety of industries, $120,000.

Brigham Young University centers are:

* Advanced Joining of Materials, which develops futuristic welding tools, $90,000.

* Advanced Structural Composites, which develops structures made with lightweight composite materials, $110,000.

* Direct Machining and Control, which develops a method that allows for the interpretation of CAD/CAM models, $120,000.

Sorry, we couldn't find any posts. Please try a different search.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.