Innovation research lost in the House

Last modified: 4/20/2011 12:00:00 AM
Henry Huntington knows the power of flowers. So when his family's business, Loudon-based Pleasant View Gardens, wanted to help breed new varieties about a decade ago, it teamed up with a plant-biology researcher at the University of New Hampshire.

Helping pay for the project was more than $110,000 in grants from the New Hampshire Innovation Research Center, a small state agency funded through the Department of Resources and Economic Development and administered by UNH. The company matched the money, and though the research didn't lead to any blockbuster breeds, Huntington says it was worth the effort.

"It was a great venture," he said yesterday. "As anything with product development, there's always the risk that you never come up with a truly viable product. If we had come up with something that really hit it, would have been wildly successful, the support would have been really wonderful to start us with those varieties."

The Innovation Research Center has given more than $5.1 million in state grants to 131 companies over the past two decades, in many cases, advocates said, leading to new products being developed and jobs being created. But the center's annual allocation of $500,000 was cut to $385,000 in Gov. John Lynch's proposed budget and eliminated completely in the state budget passed last month by the House. If money isn't restored in the final state budget, the program will disappear.

"It's kind of a shame, because the Legislature is all about jobs, jobs, jobs, and this is a program that has 600 jobs created" since 2005, said Marc Sedam, the center's executive director as well as head of UNH's Office for Research Partnerships and Commercialization. "It's everything the Legislature supports, but it's been zeroed out."

Rep. Ken Weyler, the Kingston Republican who chairs the House Finance Committee, didn't return messages seeking information. But he told the New Hampshire Business Review that the Innovation Research Center doesn't need taxpayer dollars and should have re-invested royalties from its past projects.

"They do 100 projects and it sounds like no money is coming back," Weyler said, according to the biweekly newspaper's April 8 edition. "Instead they come to the state, saying, 'Gimme, gimme, gimme.' You should go to the alumni, who are so successful thanks to your efforts. Maybe you should put the arm on them."

 Money for science

The New Hampshire Industrial Research Center (it later changed the name, swapping out "industrial" for "innovation") was created by legislation in 1991 with the goal of helping New Hampshire companies partner with academic researchers to retool and develop new products.

While any institution of higher learning could be involved, "the vast majority of the partnerships" involve UNH or Dartmouth College, said Sedam, who's headed the center since November.

The model, he said, is fairly simple: Companies and researchers team up for a project. Grants are awarded by the center's oversight committee through a review process and must be matched 100 percent by the companies, which often provide in-kind matching as well. The money pays for the researchers' work in any number of fields.

Since the program began, his office said, 131 companies have received grants, some multiple times. More than $5.1 million in state money has been matched with more than $5.4 million in company dollars. Since 2005, it's created about 600 jobs, based on numbers reported by the companies, he said.

"Any industry that the state has, has had some support on one level or another from the Innovation Research Center," Sedam said.

Warwick Mills, a New Ipswich-based firm that began in the 19th century as a cotton-textiles company, received $66,000 in grants from the center in 2006 and 2007 for research with Dartmouth's medical school on "BioWeave," a material to be used with tissue grafts.

That launched the company into the medical and biological sciences field, and it is parlaying that research into competition for large federal grants, said Jenny Houston, Warwick Mills's executive vice president and vice chairwoman of the center's oversight committee. (She said she recused herself from the award to her company.)

"This NHIRC funding, while it's very small, it's significant in its ability to parlay grants. . . . This early Dartmouth program was very instrumental in helping us first bridge that work," Houston said.

For Pleasant View Gardens, which has facilities in Loudon and Pembroke, the center's grant helped it do research on plant lines it already had an interest in pursuing.

"We're always looking for new genetics, new varieties. That's what we do," Huntington said. While several patents resulted, he said the research "didn't get as far as we wanted to go" and the company lost some money on the venture.

Still, he said, it had the potential to develop "marketable and protectable plant varieties" that could have become big sellers. If that had happened, Huntington said, the company would have made back its money, and UNH would have been able to collect royalties for the new breed - "a win-win for everybody. We would have gotten our investment back. The university potentially would have gotten a resource stream."

 Cut to zero

The center's usual annual allocation from the state is $500,000, though that was reduced to $385,000 in Lynch's proposed budget for fiscal 2012 and 2013. The center's funding was eliminated entirely in the budget prepared by the House Finance Committee, which was approved by the full chamber at the end of March.

"I just think that the way the budget process is working right now, this just got caught up in it," Sedam said.

An attempt was made to restore $385,000 a year for the program during the House budget debate on March 31, but the amendment failed on a 243-97 vote. Weyler spoke against that and other amendments to restore various programs' funding, telling fellow representatives, "All departments and services have been cut."

That leaves it up to the Senate, where Sedam and Jan Nisbet, UNH's senior vice provost for research, said the center's supporters will focus their advocacy efforts.

"Ideally, the half-million dollars would be reinstated," said Nisbet, and the center's money would be transferred to the UNH or another budget from its current place in the Department of Resources and Economic Development budget, which Sedam described as "the appendix of the history of the IRC. I don't know why" it's there.

George Bald, the department's commissioner, expressed support for the program yesterday.

"We firmly believe it's a wise investment and hope that the Senate would bring that back to at least the level that the governor has presented. . . . We certainly don't want to see it go away," Bald said. "Again, this has been a real help to a lot of companies in the state."

Houston echoed that praise, though she acknowledged budget cutting is a difficult process.

"The small amount of seed money that we're doing (this with) is really significant to what it can do to bring other funding into the state," she said. "They have to figure out ways to cut the budget, but cutting funds that bring in other dollars into the state and help businesses and create jobs, that's not the correct way to cut."

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com.)




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