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Colleges' tech cuts slow innovation

Richard Superfine, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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Kai Ryssdal: As the economy continues to shrink, and despite the billions that are in the stimulus plan, state governments are scrambling to find spare change. They're making budget cuts across dozens of different programs.

And science and technology have been hit as hard as anything else has. That means the institutions that do a lot of that kind of research, public and private universities, are having to do without now. And it's raising the possibility that breakthroughs that might actually stimulate the economy are going to be shoved to the back burner. Janet Babin reports from the Marketplace Innovations Desk at North Carolina Public Radio.


JANET BABIN: There's a very good chance that even now, as I'm talking to you, there's a graduate student in some basement research lab on the brink of the next big thing.

Rich Superfine at the University of North Carolina likes to imagine it will come from one of his post docs.

RICH SUPERFINE: Down here, is the laboratory where we do the experiments on the cilia mimics. Wow, look at all this setup.

Superfine's team has developed artificial cilia. They mimic the tiny fibers in your windpipe that protect your lungs. Ben Evans shows them off.

Ben Evans: So these are human lung cilia, and these are artificial cilia.

You know what, the real cilia are really beautiful and your cilia not so...

EVANS: Not so beautiful? We think they're absolutely...

What they lack in beauty, they make up for in utility. The fake cilia could have commercial uses, in water filtration systems, or in artificial lungs. And potential collaborators are interested.

But what Superfine's team needs -- besides more funding of course -- are deal makers.

Superfine: We need a way to get technologies from the laboratory ready to show real market potential. I mean you need people who are paying attention to it, not from the standpoint of writing a research paper, but you need real technology development people.

That's the aim of a planned 80,000-square-foot innovation center on UNC's Chapel Hill campus. The center would help Superfine's technology jump the gap from research paper to commercialization.

Except it's not happening. Before construction began, the building's private developer ran into financial problems. Then the state put the project on hold. Similar delays are happening across the country.

MIT has said it will cut at least $50 million from next year's budget because of falling endowments. New York State's technology cuts will reach into the billions.

At the University of Michigan, the tech transfer office budget will take a 3 percent hit this year. Tech transfer offices match researchers with entrepreneurs. Ken Nisbet's the executive director.

Ken Nisbet: We will definitely feel it. But we're not going to stop the work we have, and we'll figure out a way to leverage the resources we have as effectively as we can.

Last year, U of M's tech transfer office created 13 new start-up companies, mainly funded by venture capitalists. One of them builds next generation battery systems for hybrid and electric cars. But Nisbet says this year is a lot more challenging.

Nisbet: Some of our companies that we've been working with have had to stop projects because of either funding difficulties or just uncertainty. So we've lost a few deals this year already.

With state and private funds disappearing, many scientists think the federal government should step up and put more money into university research. Rich Superfine, at UNC, says that will keep university incubators running.

Superfine: If you look at one place where you're going to funnel money, it's got to go into innovation, it's got to be the next generation of companies. Because in long run that's where the money is going to pay off.

The new stimulus package includes more money for scientific research. But with so many more outstretched hands, those funds won't go as far around the lab as they used to, no matter how impressive the discovery.

In Chapel Hill, N.C., I'm Janet Babin for Marketplace.

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