Support urged for Nevada Knowledge Fund

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Photo -   Desert Research Institute Communications & Government Affairs Director Greg Bortolin, left, and President Steve Wells talk in front of the Capitol in Carson City, Nev., on Friday, Feb. 22, 2013. Wells testified earlier Friday urging lawmakers to fund a $20 million program to innovate commercialization of research. (AP Photo/Cathleen Allison)
Desert Research Institute Communications & Government Affairs Director Greg Bortolin, left, and President Steve Wells talk in front of the Capitol in Carson City, Nev., on Friday, Feb. 22, 2013. Wells testified earlier Friday urging lawmakers to fund a $20 million program to innovate commercialization of research. (AP Photo/Cathleen Allison)
News,Science and Technology

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Educators, researchers, students and labor groups urged lawmakers Friday to support pumping more money into Nevada's Knowledge Fund, an account designed to generate jobs through innovation and elevate the Silver State's status as a hub of cutting-edge research and technology.

State Sen. Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, the primary sponsor of SB173, said the bill would put Nevada on a course to compete with other states that have invested heavily in research and ways to commercialize the ideas of their brightest minds.

The bill would add $10 million in one-shot money to the $10 million Gov. Brian Sandoval proposed in his $6.5 billion general fund budget.

The concept of the Knowledge Fund was part of AB449, a bill passed by the 2011 Legislature that overhauled the state's economic development efforts and stressed cooperation among business, industry and higher education. Though hailed as a good idea, it was not funded at the time.

"I see this as a boost to help this program get up and running," Smith told members of the Senate Finance Committee.

AB449 was modeled after the Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative known as USTAR. Smith said it has averaged about $15 million a year for research that has generated tens of millions of dollars more and spurred a high-tech surge.

Smith said she hopes Nevada can attain the "vibe and buzz of what they have going on."

Stephen Wells, president of the Desert Research Institute, said called the prospect of a funded Knowledge Fund "exciting and an important step." The institution has campuses in Reno and Las Vegas and is involved in 300 research projects around the world.

"Support from the Knowledge Fund would address a major deficiency in Nevada and nationwide in U.S. research policy that neglects the transitional efforts needed between concept and product," Wells said.

He added that some intellectual property being developed by DRI researchers is being commercialized out of state "because Nevada has not invested in our institutions intellectual capital and there people's abilities to innovate and build businesses."

Marc Johnson, president of University of Nevada, Reno and one of the institutions that would eligible for Knowledge Funds, said while the university lost a third of its state support in the economic downturn, it has focused on preserving programs that attract the most students and perform the most research.

It is working with the business community and devising a center with a fee-for-service model to help meet their needs.

"State funds could be used to purchase manufacturing and testing equipment, laboratory renovation to suit these purposes, and initial hiring for professional personnel with a goal to become self-funding in the near future," Johnson said. "The Knowledge Fund can be the critical startup resource to initiate these industry resources with the expectations of self-support in the future as a critical mass of fee-for service activity is generated and the concept is proven to Nevada industry."

Thomas Piechota, vice president for research at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, echoed Johnson's enthusiasm, saying: "The timing of this bill is right."

He said UNLV is working with the governor's Office of Economic Development on an initiative related to unmanned aerial systems and has established a business startup center that will assist faculty, students and others looking to launch tech-related companies.

UNLV, Piechota said, is working on efforts involving cyber security, information technology and biomedical science, adding that the Knowledge fund "will allow us to further advance them and work closer with industry."

Steve Hill, executive director of the Governor's Office of Economic Development, said the administration supports the proposal.

"''We're excited about the Knowledge Fund," he said. But he cautioned that return on investment will take time, saying, "I don't want to mislead you that it will turn the economy around" in a short period of time.

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