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How university research can help ‘economic vibrancy of the state’

President Armacost testifies in favor of bill that provides research funding

UND President Andrew Armacost testified last week before the House Appropriations Committee of the North Dakota Legislature.North Dakota Legislative Council screen shot.

UND President Andrew Armacost last week testified before the House Appropriations Committee of the North Dakota Legislature in favor of House Bill 1379, which creates funding for university research on economic diversification and workforce development from the state’s Legacy Fund.

The bill would put $10 million in funds toward university research aimed at diversifying North Dakota’s economy and another $10 million toward workforce development and technical education. Armacost and NDSU President David Cook would serve on an eight-member committee to award research grants to institutions in the North Dakota University System.

Armacost’s testimony

Below is a transcript of Armacost’s testimony to House Appropriations Committee members on HB 1379.

Andrew Armacost

Thank you Chairman (Don) Vigesaa and members of the committee. For the record, my name is Andy Armacost. I’m the president of the University of North Dakota. I am here today to speak in favor of Bill 1379 and, in particular, the establishment of the Economic Diversification Research Fund. Many thanks to representative leader (Mike) Lefor and Sen. (Ronald) Sorvaag for their great leadership and work on preparing this particular bill.

Such a fund gives universities a big advantage in creating new knowledge and new technologies. The fund will help elevate North Dakota’s research capability, better preparing us to compete on a national stage. And the funding can support laboratory technologies, competitive student stipends, seed funding for research innovation, and also a bridge to push the application of lab ideas into the commercial world. And at UND, this includes opportunities in medicine, the biosciences, engineering, national security, cyber security, data science, energy, autonomy, materials, and many more. So you get the idea of the broad application of how we could put this fund to work.

With this funding, we can recruit and retain top-quality faculty members and students, enhance academic programs to train a high-tech workforce, and become stronger partners with industry and with other universities. We will compete for and secure — often in partnership with industry — federal funding in certain strategic research areas. University research can certainly help diversify the economy in the state of North Dakota. And strong college and university research activity is critical in every high-tech area of economic development — especially at the leading edge of technology.

Let me share with you several example of what we’ve seen at UND to answer some of the questions you have about how we make that jump from the research, the labs and ideas that happen in our research programs into commercialization.

You are likely familiar with the Northern Plains UAS Test Site and the Vantis system. But did you know the origin for both was research at the University of North Dakota? Radar research at UND reaching back many decades created the building blocks for the nation’s first beyond visual line of sight system, which enabled UAS testing and operations across the state. Making this leap required years of research on how to build the system, again, spearheaded by researchers at UND. The result of building this capability has yielded one of the nation’s most advanced ecosystems for UAS, including the North Dakota colleges and universities, the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, Grand Forks Air Force Base, Grand Sky, and dozens of private firms in the UAS business. It started with and continues through research at UND.

And here’s another example. Two UND professors, Travis Desell and Jim Higgins, developed novel AI — artificial intelligence — algorithms that proved to be useful in airport planning. In 2016, along with two other UND teammates — Josh Riedy as the CEO and Brett VanHuizen as general counsel — they created a firm called HubEdge, which commercialized the research into a product now central to the FedEx airport operations. This team then combined their entrepreneurial spirit with UND’s research in uncrewed aircraft. The firm they founded, Airtonomy, now known as Thread, was recently awarded a $15 million grant in venture funding from the North Dakota Growth Fund.

This is a great story about how university research, combined with the great sense of entrepreneurial spirit, can have a direct impact on the economic vibrancy of the state.

Armacost testifies in favor of HB 1379.

Numerous other examples exist for how research connected to solving problems can build industry opportunities. For example, Professor Kouhyar Tavakolian and his colleagues in our biomedical engineering program have a series of research projects geared toward commercial application. One is with a firm called SafetySpect, proudly headquartered at the UND Center for Innovation. Together they are developing commercial and military applications of a hand-held technology platform that detects and analyzes specific pathogens in real-time.

This startup – like Thread – is having extraordinary success, and is following a trajectory with many unfolding opportunities. National venture capital firms are eyeing SafetySpect for investment, and we’re eager to see where the collaboration goes. And again, the impact of university research, again at the heart of economic diversification for the state.

And finally, I need to talk a little bit about my own personal experience. As a 30-year-old Ph.D. student,  I,  along with my advisor, created a new class of models and algorithms that enabled us to solve huge — literally huge logistics problems. And working with the UPS air group, we implemented these algorithms for the company in the year 2000. They have been in place since, helping this Fortune 50 company make strategic decisions about their routes and their fleet of aircraft, saving literally billions of dollars. And later, in my life as a professor, I was involved directly in the research and development of assistive technologies to support children with disabilities and the commercialization of those technologies.

The point in bringing this up is really to recognize that I and (NDSU) President (David) Cook — given the structure of the advisory committee that was just described — have a major role in the success of this proposal. I commit to putting my full effort as a member of the new advisory committee, to put the state’s money to great use. Dave Cook has a tremendous background in economic development from his time in the Kansas system and I as a technologist. I think the pair of us together serving on this advisory committee is a powerful multiplier to make sure that this fund is successful.

And we partner, of course, with the other universities in this system. In a moment, you’ll hear from President (Steven) Shirley at Minot State and the efforts that they’ll put forward.

We have proven that this can work. This bill provides funding that is central to making this happen in the state of North Dakota on a grander scale.

Thank you. I’ll stand for questions from the committee. If not, I’ll turn the podium over to President Shirley.