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Forging stronger bonds between businesses, universities

Businesses seek to bridge corporate, collegiate communities

The Chris Christie administration wants to build stronger ties between higher education institutions and businesses — and observers are hoping the governor revisits a proposal to do just that.

A bill Christie recently declined to sign would have required universities to create a list of their assets, including research, which would be available to the public — including businesses that could take advantage of the assets. The measure also would require the Economic Development Authority to make an annual check of what federal grants are available for state universities.

Debbie Hart, president of biotechnology trade association BioNJ, said biotech executives have said it is important to them that the state make research information available online.

“It is critically important,” Hart said. “This bill will facilitate this all-important collaboration.”

Hart noted that two states in competition with New Jersey for biotech companies — California and Massachusetts — have stronger research collaboration.

“It will also make people outside the state aware of the research” and serve as a business recruitment tool for New Jersey, Hart said.

Hart would like to see the state maintain a database of public colleges and universities’
R&D activities, faculty expertise, and physical facilities and equipment, though confidential and privileged assets would be excluded. Each institution would be required to update its list annually.

Under the bill Christie didn’t sign, the EDA would have served as a liaison between the higher education and business communities concerning issues related to each community’s “assets, efforts, needs and challenges,” and make an annual review of federal funding available for the institutions.

The proposal would enact recommendations made by the pro-business think tank the New Jersey Policy Research Organization in July 2010.

That report noted New Jersey trails other states in the amount of R&D spending at public universities.

“We really need to revitalize our economy, and one of the ways we can do that is through innovation,” said Sara Bluhm, executive director of NJ PRO. “This legislation
was one way to facilitate that.”

Bluhm said businesses also can benefit from greater sharing between higher education
institutions. She cited assistance the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey’s patent office gave to Monmouth University in helping the latter secure a patent.

“Having this database that can spur knowledge and an innovation pipeline is a need that keeps re-emerging in our research,” Bluhm said.

Bluhm said business groups are in contact with the Christie administration regarding other ways that the state can advance these partnerships between businesses and higher education. “Often, they’re not aware of what each other is doing or what each other is capable of bringing to the table,” Bluhm said.

Bluhm said the database is particularly essential for high-tech and biotech firms, as it represents “the kind of innovation that’s going to be important to help our economy grow.”

While the bill comfortably passed in both houses, Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon (RRed
Bank) raised a concern that the bill could mandate New Jersey to spend money outside
of the annual budget process. He said he agreed with the bill “in concept,” however.

Meanwhile, the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services also said the bill may have required additional state spending, both to maintain the database and for the EDA to do federal grant research.

Hart said it’s important that Christie include similar measures in the budget. “We don’t care how we do it, as long as we do it,” she said.

In a letter to bill sponsor Assemblywoman Pamela R. Lampitt (D-Voorhees), New Jersey Association of Colleges and Universities CEO Michael W. Klein expressed support for the bill, but said he was concerned about how it defined confidential and privileged assets.

Klein also expressed skepticism that EDA aid was needed for colleges’ pursuit of federal dollars.

Lampitt became interested in the issue through hearings held by the Assembly life sciences task force.

“There is not a central clearinghouse to share and communicate” information from universities to businesses, she said.

Prior to Christie’s pocket veto, Lampitt said the bill would be worth the investment required by the state.

“It’s one of those sort of things where you’ve got to put out some dollars to make some dollars,” Lampitt said.

She added that the state must do everything it can to promote future jobs.

“We want to encourage our kids to go off to college and give them some sort of hope at the end of the days that there will be a job waiting for them,” she said.

E-mail to: akitchenman@njbiz.com

On Twitter: @Kitchenman