Boise State University

Mark Rudin: Research supports entrepreneurial spirit

Geoscientists Lejo Flores and Nancy Glenn at Bitner Vineyards west of Nampa. Flores and Glenn are working on a Web-based tool to help winemakers evaluate the suitability of soils for specific grape varieties.
Geoscientists Lejo Flores and Nancy Glenn at Bitner Vineyards west of Nampa. Flores and Glenn are working on a Web-based tool to help winemakers evaluate the suitability of soils for specific grape varieties. Boise State University

Most people think of research as the act of investigating questions and establishing facts that lead to new ways of thinking and solutions to the vexing problems that have plagued us for centuries.

But research also contributes to the economic development of a community. At Boise State, our economic development mission is about leveraging the assets of the university for the economic, societal and cultural benefit of the community, state and region. These assets include our talented researchers as well as our labs, equipment and technology.

In many cases, research like that conducted at all of Idaho’s universities also leads to innovative processes or products that result in new businesses and a boost to local economies. University research efforts fuel commercial activity, train a robust workforce and increase the area’s standard of living.

An example of current research poised to make a difference is a Web tool being developed by Boise State geoscientists Lejo Flores and Nancy Glenn. Funded by the Idaho Department of Agriculture, it will allow winemakers to access important information about the climate, soils and topography of a specific grape-growing location.

Without research, we couldn’t come up with these kinds of end products that are so useful to society. Research leads to discovery that can be applied within the community.

Boise State alone has been issued 36 U.S. patents, 184 invention disclosures and 128 patent and copyright license agreements. In addition, Idaho university graduates work for and have even launched a number of local startups related to biotechnology, computer science, mechanical engineering and more.

University successes have attracted the attention of several industry partners interested in working with researchers in the discovery phase of their work, using campus labs or hiring students and graduates. A number of programs at Boise State are focused on connecting industry with the resources they need to bring their ideas to market, ranging from scientific equipment to project management assistance.

Large federal granting agencies such as the National Science Foundation and NASA also support work being done at Idaho universities, infusing much-needed cash into the local economy through hiring lab assistants, purchasing supplies and energizing related businesses.

An example is a $10 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to establish a Center of Biomedical Research Excellence in Matrix Biology at Boise State. The center is augmenting biomedical research at the university. Important work being done under this umbrella will lead to a better idea of how certain diseases progress. This in turn could lead to ways to interfere with and stop them. Those tools and products can be marketable.

Helping students understand the real-world connection between research and economic development is a priority at Boise State. And that’s what’s so exciting about an upcoming competition aimed at solving real-world problems.

The 2016 Hult Prize challenges teams of university students to create a business plan for an enterprise that could double the income of 10 million people living in crowded urban spaces. The goal is to find a way to better connect people, goods, services and capital by 2022. This is a great example of hands-on research leading to social and economic change.

The winning team receives $1 million in start-up funding to put its idea to work. Worldwide, 25,000 teams entered proposals. This year Idaho is sending two teams to regional finals March 11-12, and I’m pleased to report that they are both from Boise State University.

One team is a group of Boise State engineering students including Michael Plaisance, Camille Eddy and Sydney Crabtree. They beat out 7,000 competitors for the right to compete at regionals in San Francisco. Their plan is to develop a $35 computer based on Raspberry Pi technology and use it to provide jobs for residents of urban slums.

The other team, comprising business graduate students Haley Schaefer, Connor Sheldon, Hannah Coad and Taylor Reed, won the inaugural Hult Prize @ Boise State event in December to snag a spot at a separate regional competition in Shanghai.

The top team from each of the five regional competitions will advance to a summer business incubator, where they will receive mentorship, advising and strategic planning. A final round of competition will be hosted by President Bill Clinton and the Clinton Global Initiative at its annual meeting in New York City in September.

These students represent the vital role of innovation and solid research in creating the successful business enterprises that will mold the future of Idaho and this nation. Whether or not they bring back the million dollar prize, they have already won.

Mark Rudin is vice president for research and economic development at Boise State University, where he oversees the Office of Sponsored Programs, the Office of Research Compliance, and other administrative and technical offices. His column looks at the state of scientific discovery and economic development in Idaho and beyond.


Celebrate the winning teams at 5:30 p.m. on Feb. 17 at Trailhead in Downtown Boise. They will be finalizing their preparations for the regional events.