Rocky Moutain Research Institutions

Making an Impact Well Beyond Their Campuses
By John Metzger

From the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), most people are aware of the elite federal research programs headquartered in the Rocky Mountain Region. But many may not realize the impact that our universities have on the economy, workforce and the environment on a global scale.

Besides filtering graduates into the labs and companies around the country and around the world, the Colorado university system and technology transfer programs employ unique and innovative methods to create a stronger impact than ever before.

Colorado State University’s CSU Ventures program fosters entrepreneurs and connects them with the research, funding and other resources that they need to move from the academic to the commercial marketplace. To accelerate and improve the process, CSU is developing The Venture Center, an organized approach to directly helping companies reach their potential after initial research is conducted at CSU.

“Entrepreneurship isn’t linear – it’s opportunistic,” said Jeremy Nelson, director of licensing and business development at CSU Ventures. “We are incubating a variety of concepts and companies ranging from organic farming to smart grid technologies that are of critical importance today. Everyone needs different tools, and The Venture Center is helping us to formalize our toolkit.”

Even though The Venture Center is new, it is helping foster new research projects and developing them into companies that stand to make a tremendous impact on world economies and the environment. For example, one recent project is Nexus Bio Energy, an organic recycling process for feedlots that uses a highly innovative reactor technology to turn animal products to energy and then to soil. Like most university incubation and tech transfer programs, CSU Ventures tracks their progress on a variety of levels including; companies and jobs created, royalties and grants received, and number of invention disclosures and licensing deals.

Jeremy Nelson

Jeremy Nelson of CSU Ventures: “Entrepreneurship isn’t linear – it’s opportunistic.”

The University of Colorado Boulder is also working to make a major impact on the global community. With the launch of the Sustainability, Energy and Environment Complex (SEEC) this year, many of CU’s all energy and sustainability programs will be in a dedicated area where professors and students can “bump elbows” and share ideas.

Jim White

Jim White of CU-Boulder’s Sustainability, Energy and Environment Center (SEEC) – the snowball effect of research.

Locally, researchers at CU are working with national organizations to measure the methane emissions as a result of livestock, mineral extraction and other sources. Researching this multi-source issue and finding balance points between production and methane levels are leading to solutions that will have a tremendous impact on the reduction of greenhouse gasses and local air quality. On the other side of the world, CU researchers are measuring the snowpack in the “High Asia” mountain region. This assessment will be crucial in helping to forecast the future availability and vulnerability of water resources in the region. Such data ultimately will provide a better understanding of the timing and volume of runoff in the face of climate change.

When it comes to measuring the impact of the SEEC program, faculty lead Jim White sees the snowball effect of research. SEEC programs currently receive $40 million in external research funding and 90 percent of that is spent within Colorado. But that $40 million doesn’t tell the whole story. According to White, that money multiplies to $100 million or more when measured by its longer-term impact within the state and local communities.

“SEEC is central to the future of sustainability research and education at CU,” said White, who also serves as the director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR). “I am excited for the next 10 years, and proud of the efforts that CU is putting forward.”

The Colorado School of Mines focuses on industry partnerships and industry funding to help solve problems facing the energy and water industries. This approach has led the school’s Tech Transfer Office to obtain a record number of disclosures (46) and deals (11) in the last year.

The Colorado School of Mines is breaking records in tech transfer deals and disclosures.

Though one of the region’s smaller research programs, CSM is making a major impact on issues that are affecting the oil and gas, mineral extraction, water and battery industries.

“Before this tech transfer program, Mines did not have an entrepreneurial culture,” said Will Vaughan, director of the Colorado School of Mines Tech Transfer Office. “We’re an engineering school, and if you give engineers a chance to get their work out into the market, they’ll take it.”

“We’re able to make it easy for companies to work with us, and to attract industry grants for proof-of-concept funding,” said Vaughan. Some of these projects have included a new steel stamping method, and several fracking patents. “Further than that, the School of Mines is looking to expand in bio and nuclear power, as well as to attract more graduate students and build research infrastructure while maintaining the intimacy of the school,” according to Vaughan.

Just north of Colorado’s Front Range, large wind turbines provide hands-on education and research opportunities for University of Wyoming students in Laramie. The School of Energy Resources (SER) focuses on innovative energy development in one of the nation’s primary regions for oil and gas drilling. SER was created in 2006 and measures itself along a number of objectives. These include the advancement of state-of-the-art Wyoming energy-related science, technology and economics research, critical workforce development, and enhancing relationships with regional energy organizations to optimize Wyoming’s energy portfolio. UW recently joined the Center for Advanced Energy studies that includes Idaho universities and the Department of Energy Idaho National Lab.

WPX Drilling Simulator in the University of Wyoming’s Energy Innovation Center

“We maximize outcomes by integrating state-of-the-art technologies to solve major issues facing the energy industry,” said UW Director of Academics Don Roth. “We have established highly successful workforce-focused academic programs and have several exceptional interdisciplinary research initiatives. We’ve developed groundbreaking approaches to optimize production from unconventional gas and oil reservoirs that do not flow at economically feasible production rates. We are developing vital value-added alternative uses for energy sources, as well as synergistic hybrid energy systems and power management approaches that mitigate the problems with variable power supply.” A major thrust of SER also includes outreach to the public and industry. “We are committed to maximizing connections between SER-affiliated research, academics and stakeholders in the state and region.”

These academic institutions are taking bold steps that make for big advancements in clean energy. Further collaboration and cooperation among these Rocky Mountain region institutions are bringing new technologies to the commercial marketplace faster than ever before, and are having a measurable cleantech impact at home and around the world.