The University of Minnesota courts the military

By Mike Kaszuba

In the spring of this year, the State of Minnesota submitted a high-profile bid to have the United States Army build a Futures Command Center in the state.  The bid – while ultimately unsuccessful – provided a revealing look at how the University of Minnesota tried to market itself to the military.

More than 500 pages of documents, including the bid, were obtained by Saint Paul-based non-profit Public Record Media.  The documents – particularly those that were part of a preliminary bid – showed that the school highlighted existing military projects, and was poised to form a closer partnership with the Army.

“Soft robots” and skin-printed electronics

In one project, the university showcased its work with the U.S. Army Research Laboratory to “explore the wonders of soft robots” – including invertebrate-inspired robotics “able to squeeze into and maneuver around obstacles.”  In another, the school pointed out that its college of science and engineering had studied a way “to print electronics on a real hand for the first time.  The technology could be used by soldiers on the battlefield to print temporary sensors on their bodies to detect chemical or biological agents or solar cells to charge essential electronics.”

The school also highlighted the work of a professor that might help with “future scramjet-powered hypersonic aircraft” and “an inward-turning inlet for [an] upcoming sounding rocket flight experiment of a Mach 10 vehicle.”

In addition, the school noted that it was opening a new robotics lab this year (the facility features a two-story lab “to accommodate research on flying robots”) and had more than 300 existing research, outreach and educational centers whose work “may be applicable to the U.S. Army.”  Those centers, the school noted, included entities such as the Center for Compact and Efficient Fluid Power (working to “transform the fluid power industry”) and the Center for Spintronic Materials, Interfaces and Novel Architectures (which is developing “technologies for spinbased computing and memory systems.”)

The projects were part of a preliminary presentation to the U.S. Army which showed that the school received $26.1 million from the U.S. Department of Defense in 2017 – a sum that ranked well behind the $244 million in federal money for research received from the National Institutes of Health.

Army selected Texas over Minnesota

Although the Twin Cities was a finalist, the Army announced in July that it would locate its Futures Command Center in Austin, Texas.  According to the Army, the facility would explore technologies needed to modernize the service and prepare for future wars.

But the Army’s inclusion of the Twin Cities as a potential location – and the possible role for the state’s largest public university – caught the attention of some key people.  “This is a major development, and the single largest reason MN is a focus is the presence of the U of MN,” Joshua Straka, an aide to democratic Congresswoman Betty McCollum, wrote in an April 18th e-mail.

“I’d like to treat this very seriously,” Matt Kramer, the school’s vice president for university relations, wrote the same day.  As the school moved quickly to assemble information for the Army, Kramer told colleagues in a separate e-mail that “while they don’t ask specifically for healthcare related innovation applicable to the [Department of Defense], I’m confident that we have some great examples we can provide them [that] easily translates into innovative solutions for our soldiers.”

E-mails describe political assumptions surrounding bid

Kramer, a former top aide to Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, also acknowledged the role the Twin Cities’ liberal politics might play in the bidding process.  “I see Minneapolis taking a pretty easy going attitude, in no small part to their desire not to have a US Army Command here (and yes, conjecture on my part, but given this [City Council], pretty likely),” he noted.

There were other written hints that school officials were concerned about how courting the military might be perceived.

Dan Gilchrist, another university official, wrote in an April 30th e-mail about taking precautions because of “possible faculty sensitivities around this effort so we can avoid internal political problems.”

Focus on hypersonic research

Meanwhile, the school moved to give the Army details of what it could offer.  The university highlighted the work of professor Graham Candler and a colleague, and noted that Candler’s research into helping develop a hypersonic “scramjet” could also help with “the analysis of planetary entry spacecraft heat shields, hypersonic boundary layer transition, and the effects of chemical reactions on aerodynamics.”

School officials were eager to promote Candler’s work.

In a May 4th e-mail message, university official Bradley Robideau noted the Army’s interest in hypersonics, and then asked a colleague if Candler’s lab was still active.

Rhonda Zurn, another school official, replied that “the lab might no longer be funded, but Graham Candler still does this kind of research.”

In response, Robideau suggested “We can draft a couple of lines referencing his research.”

Federal funding down; business research up

Documents obtained by PRM also showed that the bid to host the Futures Command Center came as the school faced a decline in overall federal money for research.  While federal funding totaled nearly $439 million in 2017 – and remained the largest source of external research money – the figure had dropped $27 million, or nearly 6 percent, from the year before.

The $26.1 million that the Department of Defense gave to the school in 2017 ranked it third among federal agencies, behind the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation ($71.6 million) but ahead of the U.S. Department of Agriculture ($25.6 million).

At the same time, the university’s presentation to the Army highlighted the school’s increasingly close ties to business research and related funding.  University documents showed that during 2017, funding for business and industry research increased to $83.9 million, stemming from 1,578 different awards.  The same figure stood at $47.7 million in 2013.

“Businesses are typically interested in research that has direct applicability (versus theoretical) and our ability to grow this line of funding demonstrates that our corporate partners find our collaboration not only valuable from an academic perspective, but important to their economic vitality,” the school stated.

However, university documents also indicated that moving closer to business interests created complications.  “As a major research university in the early twenty-first century, we tread a fine but important line between, on the one hand, selling the practical application of our research, both to public officials and, increasingly, the industry partners we have cultivated, and, on the other, highlighting the importance of basic, curiosity-driven research,” the school stated in documents obtained by PRM.

“Both solution [and] curiosity-driven research are important components of a university’s research portfolio,” it added.

The documents highlighted the fact that the university’s Business Advisory Group had over 200 members from local industry, which added “to the connectedness of the innovation ecosystem.”  The university also noted that investments in its Discovery Nexus space within the McNamara Alumni Center “strengthen[ed] relationships between critical members of the supporting ecosystem, bringing them together to assist in the advancement of ideas and technology.”

Local corporate-military collaboration highlighted

A draft of the Futures Command bid – which included input from the university – highlighted the existing ties between Minnesota’s corporations and the military.  “Our companies are ready to work with you.  In fact, many of them already are,” the draft stated.

The draft proposal noted that the U.S. Department of Defense spent $4.3 billion on contracts in Minnesota during 2015, with $3.3 billion in Hennepin County.  The top defense contractors included UnitedHealth Group at $2.8 billion, Alliant Techsystems at $240 million, BAE Systems at $156 million, and Cummins at $141 million.

The state’s bid also detailed the collaboration between Minnesota-based Polaris Industries and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) — and included a nod to Polaris ties to the university.  The bid stated that Polaris and DARPA had worked together on “research, development, and advancement of autonomy-ready, layered-cybersecurity, hybrid off[-]road vehicles to provide timely and affordable light tactical mobility solutions for government and defense applications.”

“The commercially-derived MRZR-X by Polaris is the only optionally manned vehicle in the Army’s Squad Multipurpose Equipment Transport (SMET) competition.  Polaris has further teamed with the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Business to further drive supply chain optimization, focused marketing and Public-Private Partnerships evolutions,” the bid added.

Documents obtained by PRM also described aspects of InfraGard – a partnership between the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and members of the private sector.  The documents described the Twin Cities’ InfraGard chapter as “one of the largest and most robust in the country” and explained that InfraGard “expedites the timely exchange of information and promotes mutual learning opportunities relevant to the protection of Critical Infrastructure.”  According to documents, InfraGard’s membership “includes business executives, entrepreneurs, military and government officials, computer professionals, academia and state and local law enforcement; each dedicated to contributing industry specific insight and advancing national security.”

A note to the draft bid added that the proposal should include an appendix “that succinctly links [an individual business] to the categories [of interest to the Army – such as] Long-range precision fires, next Generation Combat Vehicle, Future Vertical Lift, Army Network, Air Missile Defense, Soldier Lethality.”

Mayo Clinic connections

In addition, the documents showed that Minnesota’s preliminary bid highlighted the Mayo Clinic’s existing ties to the U.S. Army as well.

The Mayo Clinic’s Department of Defense Medical Research Office oversees “Mayo’s portfolio of DOD-funded research,” the documents noted, and added that dozens of Mayo researchers receive funding for special projects.  “Mayo researchers have produced hundreds of solutions to address the challenges faced by the Department of Defense [in] keeping our country and the military operating efficiently and safely,” the documents stated.

Super Bowl, sites, and “Geekettes” referenced

Documents submitted to the military also called attention to the Super Bowl, which was played in Minneapolis earlier this year.  It cited emergency preparedness work leading up to the game undertaken by the 55th Civil Support Team, whose job was to prepare for “the use or threatened use of a Weapon of Mass Destruction, a terrorist attack or threatened terrorist attack that results in or could result in catastrophic loss of life or property.”  It added that the unit also prepared for “the intentional or unintentional release of nuclear, biological, radiological or toxic or poisonous chemicals.”

As part of the state’s attempt to lure the Army, a draft proposal listed a series of possible sites across the Twin Cities metro area.  They included the former Army ammunition plant site in Arden Hills, the University of Minnesota’s UMore Park property in Rosemount, and the former Imation Inc. property in Oakdale near Interstate 694.  Other sites included a 122-acre property in Inver Grove Heights near the new Minnesota Vikings practice facility, and a 29-acre site near Surly Brewery along the Green Line light rail route.

In touting Minnesota’s existing technology support network, the overall draft proposal also mentioned the Twin Cities Geekettes, a networking group that “facilitates relationships between women in the technology sector through meetups, workshops and hackathons.”

Greater MSP worked on Army proposal

Documents released by the State of Minnesota contained one other notable revelation: In putting together the bid for the Army, the State of Minnesota was again collaborating with Greater MSP, an influential business development group.  The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development [DEED] made the state’s 67-page proposal to the Army available to PRM.  A DEED spokesman said that the state agency formally submitted the bid to the Army, and that Greater MSP “assisted” in preparing it.

Greater MSP’s “investors” include some of Minnesota’s most influential corporations, including Cargill, Medtronic and Target. Notably, the organization played a pivotal role last year when Minnesota made an unsuccessful bid to secure Amazon’s second corporate headquarters.  In the case of the Amazon bid, DEED has maintained that Greater MSP – and not DEED — submitted the bid on the state’s behalf, and that the state agency does not have a full copy of the bid.  PRM has since filed a lawsuit against Greater MSP and DEED after both entities declined to make the Amazon bid public.  The lawsuit is pending, with an upcoming hearing scheduled for November 20th.

Documents surrounding the bid for the Army’s Futures Command Center showed that both DEED and Greater MSP were again prominently involved.

“Joel Akason (Greater MSP) and Kevin McKinnon (DEED) are leading the effort.  We (the U) are submitting a very strong response for Greater MSP to use in the proposal,” the university’s Matt Kramer wrote in an April 30th e-mail.

In a May 23rd message to a group of government officials and industry representatives, Greater MSP chief executive officer Michael Langley stated that he was writing “on behalf of Congresswoman Betty McCollum, [DEED] Commissioner Shawntera Hardy and the GREATER MSP Board of Directors” and wanted to convene a meeting to “discuss our region’s collective capabilities and interest in serving the nation’s national defense” and also to talk about “our next steps with the Army.”

Meanwhile, in a May 30th e-mail, the university’s Matt Kramer discussed another topic:  Having Minnesota form a Defense Innovation and Technology Roundtable, an industry group that would include the state’s top companies.  Kramer noted that the idea was suggested by Congresswoman McCollum.

“I provisionally told the group that we would be happy to participate,” Kramer wrote, apparently referring to the university.

“The only big company at this meeting was Polaris and they said they were in.  Greater MSP wants to take the temperature of [Minnesota’s other Fortune 500] companies, but I suspect they will want to move forward,” he said.  Kramer added that the roundtable would showcase “what the defense sector industry can do to present itself to the community, the state and the Feds.”