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More info needed before research center can proceed

Tribune photo by Gary Miller Robert Jones, senior vice president at the University of Minnesota, discusses the university's goals for serving the region during a meeting Tuesday at the MinnWest Technology Campus in Willmar.

WILLMAR -- There was a shaky start Tuesday to the process of getting community feedback on what kind of equipment and services the University of Minnesota should provide for a research laboratory and business development center that will be built on the MinnWest Technology campus in Willmar.

There were a few blank stares when a facilitator prodded the crowd to voice votes on things like Oliogonucleotide and peptide synthesis and inductively coupled plasma atomic emission spectroscopy.

Part of the problem was that many of the participants really didn't know what the "Mid-Central Biosciences Resources Center" is -- or will be -- let alone make a shopping list of equipment.

By all accounts the Mid-Central Biosciences Resources Center is a unique concept of private and public collaboration that may be difficult to visualize.

In basic terms, it will be a working laboratory housed in an existing building on the MinnWest campus.

It has the potential to have all the exclusive state-of-the-art equipment that a bioscience-related business could hope for -- yet never afford on their own -- when it comes to dreaming about doing research and development for their business.

The center could also have the staff to conduct the research.

Funded with a $1.25 million grant from the state Department of Employment and Economic Development and matched by MinnWest, the facility will be geared for businesses focused in biobusiness, biotechnology, engineering and other technical businesses.

Under the leadership of the University of Minnesota, businesses will have access to University staff and resources as well as the labor of Minnesota State Colleges and University student interns.

The goal of the center is to conduct research and testing that will create a marketable product for businesses and provide hands-on experience for students.

One of the businesses that will make good use of the facility is Epitopix.

Already located on the MinnWest campus, the company has developed a vaccine for beef cattle to prevent E. coli.

With the right equipment and student interns to run repeated tests, that vaccine could be developed for other species, said Jim Sieben, president of MinnWest. That would help Epitopix and the students, he said.

In order to make that all come together community input is needed to make sure the center is equipped correctly to meet the needs of all the partners, said Dr. Robert Jones, Senior Vice President of the University of Minnesota.

That's why the community meeting was held.

Gradually, as the plan was slowly explained, engineers, doctors, land surveyors and entrepreneurs started talking about the kind of equipment and research they could do if the right equipment and resources was located in Willmar.

"We have one opportunity to get this right," said Jones, who admitted he was losing sleep that something would be built that no one needed.

Jones said he did not intend to build something that would "collect dust."

There will be many eyes watching the development of this unique research facility to make sure that what's created is something that is needed and will be used to help business and the educational partners.

The facility "has to benefit everyone," but cannot meet the needs of every business, said Jones. "You see the predicament that we're in," he said.

The University of Minnesota is the lead educational facility for the project with collaboration of MnSCU schools lead by St. Cloud State University. Ridgewater College in Willmar is also a partner in the project.

It was agreed that additional businesses should be surveyed, and another community meeting held, before plans for the center could be developed and equipment purchased.

Jones said he'd like to have the additional data compiled within 30-60 days.

At that point, he said, it'll be time to "fish or cut bait."

Individuals who want to provide input on the research center should contact Steve Salzer, general manager of the MinnWest Technology Campus, at 320-222-9771.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750