Bucks from beakers 

How research at UM brews up business

Carolyn Hart taps the side of a syringe that is packed with little white pellets. Air bubbles loosen from the pellets, which act like miniature, natural sponges attracting metals from liquid. Hart is a research specialist for Purity Systems Inc., which uses the tiny white silica pellets to clean up mine waste.

Hart’s employer is just one of three companies recently spawned inside the labs at the University of Montana’s chemistry department. These companies are tangible evidence that public funds dedicated to higher education yield jobs in the private sector. Some members of the University community, though, fear that when the state budget needs cutting, UM is too easy a target. This year, the Legislature lopped off $4.2 million from its original $36.8 million UM allocation.

“There are people out there who think that money spent on the University is a bad idea. And that’s too bad,” says Hart. “There’s a lot of amazing stuff going on here.”

Edward Rosenberg, chair of the chemistry department and director of Purity Systems, says he isn’t asking for additional money from the state.

“We are probably one of the best funded departments on campus,” he says.

But Rosenberg doesn’t want to see the stream of state support dry up: “These last rounds of cuts were just tragic for the University.”

It could be that the cuts were tragic for private industry, too.

Purity Systems, which has a patent for cleaning mine waste, currently employs 11 people. If the company finalizes an order within one year as Rosenberg expects, he sees it expanding.

“Immediately, I would imagine a research and development facility here in Missoula,” says Rosenberg. “In addition, there’s manufacturing.”

Mining companies overseas are negotiating with Purity Systems. If the EPA tightens environmental restrictions, Montana mining companies might be lining up as well.

Sustainable Systems, a local business started by Paul Miller—a graduate student in UM’s chemistry department—is also looking for a market niche in Montana. Sustainable Systems makes biodiesel, a non-toxic, renewable, valuable fuel derived from Montana-grown vegetable oils.

Using grape seed oil, alcohol and potassium hydroxide pills that look like tiny Altoid mints, Miller mixes the biofuel.

“Listen,” he says, as the concoction blends, sounding faintly like corn kernels popping. “In about 30 seconds, you hear the viscosity change. You hear it?”

The liquid slaps against the small flask, transformed from a thick, viscous syrup into a splashing honey-mustard. After eight to 10 hours of settling, fuel that contains more energy than was used to create it will float at the top.

Miller’s current client is the UM Bio Bus. Potential clients include mail trucks and school buses. Sustainable Systems, says Miller, is “on the brink of explosion.”

Sunburst Censors is yet another business that has grown out of the chemistry department’s research. David Irwin, co-owner of the company, builds SAMIs (Submersible Autonomous Moored Instrument), devices that monitor global warming.

He likes to hire UM students, and he pays them relatively well.

“I just don’t see hiring anybody for less than eight bucks an hour no matter what they’re doing—and $10 is more realistic,” says Irwin.

Fully trained staff receive $15 an hour and everyone gets benefits. In addition to employing a home-grown work force, Irwin looks within the state when his company needs services.

“What I see as a big part of my mission…is to help Montana’s economy,” says Irwin.

“We need to become a value-added economy,” continues Irwin, and “(the University) is the best vehicle that’s out there.”

Sen. Linda Nelson, (D-Medicine Lake), is chair of the state’s interim education committee. She believes that most of her colleagues in the Legislature disagree with Irwin.

“I don’t think when we talk about budget cuts that the University is seen as an investment,” says Nelson.

Admittedly, no UM-inspired company has revolutionized Montana’s economy. But they are each a pointillist drop on a canvas that includes many products, services and cold, hard cash the University returns to the community.

UM President George Dennison can name four other departments whose research has started companies. With tuition, fees and state funds, Dennison says he’s running an $82 million business, of which the state’s contribution is now $32 million. This year, UM students, staff and visitors will spend about $233 million in the community, according to the UM Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

“Just ask yourself—and ask any legislator—if there was any other business (worth) $100 million in jeopardy in Montana, what would you do about it? Would you just let it die? Or would you try to build it and sustain it?” asks Dennison.

In spite of budget cuts, UM’s work chugs along. Grape seed oil separates into fuel in a glass ball in the chemistry department’s basement. Mine waste from Australia runs through miniature tapioca-pebble sponges. The Bio Bus turns a corner on campus. A grad student closes a lab book at 2:30 a.m. And a young Missoula scientist cashes a paycheck worth a living wage. Amazing stuff indeed.

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