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Patrick Springer, Published August 11 2012

Centers of Excellence have drawn $157M in private donations

FARGO – Engineers and electronics experts at North Dakota State University are helping to shrink tiny components for hearing aids.

Others on campus are working to protect the surfaces of Navy ships and Air Force planes, and to devise new coatings for military uniforms and tents.

The projects – just a few of many examples – are being handled by programs supported by the North Dakota Centers of Excellence program, in collaboration with research partners in the public and private sectors.

Now in their sixth year, the programs at NDSU, the University of North Dakota and other state campuses have used state funds totaling $39.6 million that have attracted matching investments of $157 million from 185 companies, according to state figures.

The program has been credited with creating 973 direct jobs at an estimated annual payroll of

$52.1 million.

Those figures were discussed this week at a meeting at NDSU of the North Dakota Centers of Excellence Commission, whose members allocate funds to approved research centers.

“We’re supporting the businesses that are making investments in the state of North Dakota,” said Mark Nisbet, an executive at Xcel Energy and chairman of the commission.

“Long term, it’s going to provide good quality, high-paying jobs for the citizens of North Dakota.”

A prime example, he said, is the decision by Caterpillar to invest $50 million to expand its plant in West Fargo, which has convenient access to expertise at NDSU.

“That sort of tells the story,” Nisbet said. The plant sprawls over 350,000 square feet and has about 400 employees.

“They had a choice as to where in the world, literally, they could expand their operations” and chose West Fargo, said Al Anderson, commissioner of the North Dakota Department of Commerce, which administers the Centers of Excellence program. “To me it epitomizes what we’re all about.”

Some of the expertise Caterpillar is tapping is with NDSU’s Center for Technologically Innovative Processes and Products.

The center also is working with Amity Technology of Fargo on the next generation of air seeders that would employ better materials and mechanisms, said Rob Sailer, a research engineer at NDSU.

Similarly, the center is helping Mid-America Aviation of West Fargo to devise a transmission housing to keep the Air Force’s aging fleet of B-52 bombers flying.

Yet another project is work with Starkey, a Twin Cities firm that is a leading maker of hearing aids and cochlear implants, to miniaturize components in hearing aids to make them less noticeable for the user.

“We’re right in the middle of their product development line,” said Phil Boudjouk, NDSU’s vice president for technology, whose office oversees five of the campus’s designated centers of excellence.

“Most of our activities here are directed at bringing the outside world to the campus and the campus to the outside world,” Boudjouk said, referring to public and private research partners.

Many of the research partnerships combine areas of expertise. For example, high-performance computing expertise is required for research that makes extensive use of computer modeling.

Testing ideas in computer runs allows researchers to perform lab experiments only on the most promising approaches, helping to save time and money.

“That’s at the heart of the relationship with Sanford,” Boudjouk said, referring to NDSU’s collaboration with Sanford Health in biomedical research.

Sanford, together with RJ Lee, has committed to contribute $2.7 million to NDSU’s Center for Life Sciences Research and Applications.

NDSU and Sanford will meet next month to agree upon research priorities involving genetics and medicine, said Ruth Krystopolski, Sanford’s executive vice president of development and research.

Sanford is interested in pursuing genetic and genomic research in the area of breast cancer and in general medicine that uses genetics to devise individualized therapies for patients, she said.

“Our goal is to partner with NDSU around some specific projects in the genomics space,” she said.

Although Krystopolski declined to say how significant Sanford’s research program in Fargo will become, she said: “It’s a big piece in our overall strategic research plan,” and she noted that breast cancer research is a major Sanford initiative. “It’s a huge strategic priority.”

In another example of multi-disciplinary re-search, microelectronics experts can work with life sciences researchers on projects, Boudjouk said.

“We can draw upon very substantial abilities in microelectronics,” he said. “We can bring to bear a lot of very high-level skills.”

Bruce Rafert, NDSU’s provost and vice president for academic affairs, said the university is working to combine genetic research involving plants, animals and medicine.

A director for the institute, Keith Murphy, has just been hired from Clemson University, and will be adding staff and equipment in the months ahead.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522