Driving the field
UND quest for research support in ‘Green Zone’ and ‘Red Zone’ seen as keys to victory
BISMARCK — Football season may be six months away, but there was an awful lot of grid iron talk at the North Dakota Legislature Monday.
University of North Dakota officials used the football analogy to drive home a point about the importance of university research in the first 80 yards of the proverbial field, otherwise known as the “Green Zone.” After that, initiatives designed to promote commercialization, intellectual property development and new startups are needed to carry the team through the “Red Zone” and across the goal line.
UND President Mark Kennedy, using a visual demonstration peppered with Fighting Hawks Football images, told lawmakers that one of the biggest Green Zone needs is to resurrect funding for the Northern Tier Network, a high-speed digital data pipeline linked to other major research universities, national laboratories and Cloud providers via the Internet2 National Backbone. The Internet2 network is the high-speed, high-capacity connection that links research universities around the nation and allows them to collaborate more effectively.
A North Dakota University System optional budget request, as it currently stands, would provide $5.7 million for the digital initiative, with $2 million each to UND and NDSU to support high-performance computing needs. The remaining amount would fund UND and NDSU’s share of participation on the Northern Tier Network.
UND and NDSU leaders would like to see initiative funded to the fullest as a means of catching up with their research peers around the nation.
The NDUS had funded the Northern Tier Network in every biennium, almost from its inception until 2017, when the plug was pulled.
As a result, Kennedy stressed, North Dakota’s university research community has fallen behind quickly, and that current Informational Technology (IT) infrastructure is inadequate to support the state’s growing research needs in Big Data, precision agriculture, unmanned system, energy exploration and more.
“If you look at the high-speed internet that is connecting our research institutions with each other and with federal research entities, we are at a much smaller bandwidth than all of the other states around us,” Kennedy said. “If we don’t fund this we will be going backwards.”
A further benefit of the initiative allows UND and NDSU, as the state’s two Internet2 members, to pay the fee that allows all other NDUS schools and North Dakota K-12 schools access to the network.
Looking for hunters
Other so-called Green Zone proposals that UND is hoping to include in its future playbooks is a NDUS request for $10 million to support research at UND and NDSU, a separate $6 million request for UND’s Energy & Environmental Research Center and up to $45 million from the Legacy Fund for the state’s two research universities.
“For us to do more, we need more hunters that hunt for research dollars, and they need the resources to go out and bring those resources in,” Kennedy said. ”I do believe we are leaving federal dollars on the table by not having more resources for us to invest in the kinds of hunters that go out and get those additional research dollars.”
For its part, UND isn’t waiting to get into the game. UND has reallocated more than $6 million for research seed money, primarily in areas associated with its five Grand Challenges (research focus areas in Human Health, Rural Health & Communities, Unmanned Systems, Energy and Environmental Sustainability and Big Data). The aim of using the seed money to land even more funding has paid off, with nearly $30 million in big-ticket federal grants tied to its Grand Challenges.
In 2017, UND launched the Research Institute for Autonomous Systems (RIAS), a statewide resource center for autonomous activity, with the goal of keeping North Dakota at the forefront of UAS research, education and training. Late last year, RIAS partnered with the Northern Prairie UAS Test Site and private-sector developer Harris Corp., to conduct the first-ever flights over a broad-scale beyond-visual-line-of-sight network, a major step toward opening the skies to a multi-billion commercial UAS market.
Also, the University is investing $10 million over five years in “Big Data” capabilities on campus. Soon that will translate into the hiring of six new scientists, specializing in future-facing initiatives in Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, cybersecurity and high-powered analytics.
These ongoing on-campus initiatives coupled with the research proposals weaving their way through the Legislature are the impetus needed to quarterback UND through the Green Zone into the Red Zone, where commercialization becomes a major play. House Bill 1333, which supports commercialization and entrepreneurial activity to bring ideas to market, could be a key to UND’s future Red Zone success.
Just like in the Green Zone, UND is preparing its hurry-up offense to act now in the Red Zone, specifically through initiatives at the Center for Innovation. The Center recently hired a new commercialization specialist to engage potential startups in the autonomous industry sector. There’s also a commitment to hire additional commercialization staff for corporate outreach and technology transfer to identify, advance and protect University intellectual property.
Synergies and collaborations also are important, according to Amy Whitney, Center director.
The Center is sharing a new development officer with the EERC to support commercialization and corporate engagement efforts, and is also working with the North Dakota Department of Commerce, the Bank of North Dakota and NDSU to co-fund another commercialization developer position, she said.
“At UND we don’t like (intellectual property) to sit on the shelf,” Whitney said. “We want to make sure we have every opportunity to move discoveries forward…that’s what we do every day at the Center for Innovation.”