Researchers and entrepreneurs in the mid-valley celebrated this week when Oregon was named one of six winners of the i6 Challenge, a $12 million competition by the federal government to identify the nation's best ideas for technology commercialization and entrepreneurship.
The $1 million award, announced Thursday in Washington, D.C. by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, will be shared by Oregon's three Signature Research Centers, which were created by Gov. Ted Kulongoski and the Oregon Legislature to spur economic development by turning university-based research into new products, companies and jobs.
The centers -- The Oregon Translational Research & Drug Development Institute (OTRADI); the Oregon Built Environment & Sustainable Technologies Center (Oregon BEST) and the Oregon Nanoscience & Microtechnologies Institute (ONAMI) -- will use the grant to develop mentoring and business assistance resources for innovators and startup companies; increase commercialization investments; provide internships and residencies to students and faculty researchers; attract new investment capital to Oregon, and create an independent venture-backed bioscience accelerator program.
On Thursday, ONAMI president and executive director Skip Rung described what this award means for his organization, as well as Oregon State University and Corvallis.
"Well, I think ONAMI already has a decent amount of momentum, I would say, in increasing research awards and getting funding into our gap fund. Our desire in applying for this was to accelerate that - to get more resources into it ... to help some of the areas where Oregon's entrepreneurial efforts are weak."
The six i6 Challenge Grants were awarded to six different EDA districts in the United States. Oregon is part of the Seattle Region, which includes Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, Washington, American Samoa, Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, Federated States of Micronesia, the Rep. of Marshall Islands and the Rep. of Palau.
"It is the largest and, I think, most competitive district in the nation and we're all the more excited to have won given that," Rung said.
ONAMI has three affiliated research facilities: the Microproducts Breakthrough Institute in Corvallis, the Center for Advanced Materials Characterization (CAMCOR ) at University of Oregon and the Center for Electron Microscopy and Nanofabrication (CEMN) at Portland State University.
ONAMI has 250 research members drawing from those three universities and also Oregon Health and Sciences University and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, which employs eight or nine people in Corvallis.
"We're statewide, but primarily in Corvallis, Eugene and Portland," Rung said. "Our commercialization gap fund is our flagship project. It's the one that worked with Home Dialysis Plus from the very beginning. So for us, it's all about helping entrepreneurs be more successful."
Oregon BEST also has a number of Corvallis ties.
"There are researchers at OSU that are members of Oregon BEST - which is the lion's share of the researchers at Oregon BEST. We have 180 total at OSU, UO and OIT," reported Oregon BEST media liaison Gregg Kleiner
In addition, there are two Oregon BEST laboratories in Corvallis: a green building materials research lab in the Forest Engineering Building on campus and the Oregon Process Innovation Center (OPIC) solar research lab in Building 11 of the Hewlett-Packard campus.
"Those are two labs that Oregon BEST has funded in order to help create laboratories with tools available for business people," Kleiner said.
ONAMI, Oregon BEST and OTRADI are all initiatives of the Oregon Innovation Council, which was created in 2005 to bring together the private sector, the state's four research universities and government to spur an innovation-based economy. The funding, which is expected to be shared equally, will also expand gap funding programs that support early private-public ventures, and mentor students to be well prepared to work in and launch entrepreneurial ventures.
"There are a number of things that we'll do together, in practice that's what will happen, but there are some activities that we each do in our own industry sectors and there are ones that we will do together like sponsorship of angel (investor) conferences, like the Willamette Angel Conference, and training programs for new entrepreneurs and things like that," Rung said. "So, it's a mixture of things that make sense to do all three of us together and activities for us each to do separately in our respective areas. But, it is a team effort, both the execution and the application."
"This national award validates our innovative approach to economic development here in Oregon, bringing industry and university researchers together in targeted sectors to collaboratively commercialize new products and technologies - which translates into new jobs," said Gov. Kulongoski.
"That's what I think this i6 award challenge was giving a nod to - it's a pretty innovative approach, bringing business to the universities and vice-versa to spur an economic impact," Kliner agreed.
Kliner gave an example of a current Oregon BEST project:
"Oregon BEST is working with Fred Kamke, he's a professor in food science engineering at Oregon State University who has come up with at way to densify - in other words harden and strengthen - the hybrid poplar wood, which is a soft wood. Normally, it's just chopped up and used for pulp, but Fred Kamke has come up with a way to run it through a process where he applies heat and steam and makes this hybrid wood have the same strength as clear vertical grain old-growth fir. So, suddenly you have a ‘trash' tree that now can be a green building product with a lot of strength; that grows much faster. Oregon BEST is trying to connect him to a business partner who can then take that technology to the next level and create a product."
Additional funding could potentially follow shortly when the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation award a total of up to $6 million in supplemental funding to their Small Business Innovation Research grantees that are associated or partnered with the winning teams.
"The state's investment in its Signature Research Centers continues to pay real dividends," said Tim McCabe, director of the Oregon Business Development Department. "This grant will give us more tools to help businesses and entrepreneurs create the jobs that will help Oregon grow out of this recession with a stronger and more diverse economy."
"All three signature research centers created by the state offer Oregon businesses and researchers a unique suite of tools, and it's wonderful to collectively receive national recognition for our innovative programs and approach to job creation," said David Kenney, president and executive director of Oregon BEST.
"This grant is clear recognition at the national level that what we're doing in Oregon - tapping our intellectual capital and teaming the business community with academia to launch startups and help existing companies - is working well," Rung said.