Research fundís slow start still holds promise for state

Published: Monday, June 15, 2009 7:00 am By: The Oklahoman Editorial

The Oklahoman

Millions of dollars are riding on Paul Risser's homework assignment. But that's not all. As a member of the board that will decide where to invest proceeds from the EDGE research endowment, Risser and fellow board members are helping the state create a more prosperous future.

Last month, 65 researchers or teams of researchers filed the first round of applications seeking to get a piece of the $5 million available for EDGE awards this year. The number of applications is down from 94 last year, when the endowment's policy board disbursed its first-ever awards totaling $12.5 million.

Members of the board and its advisory committee are reviewing the preliminary proposals - a complicated homework assignment. Next month, the board will narrow the list of applicants and invite as many as a dozen to make full proposals, said Risser, who also serves as the EDGE fund's executive director.

Last year, the board had two years of endowment earnings to work with and selected five awardees. With only a year's interest to award this time, it's likely as few as three applicants will receive funding.

It's disappointing that five years after the Economic Development Generating Excellence project began, the endowment has only $150 million toward the $1 billion goal. Yet despite the slow start, any one of the selected projects could lead to the development of products or companies that eventually could generate high-paying jobs and diversify the state's economy. The possibilities are exciting and infinite. Part of that is because state leaders thought especially big in setting up the program.

Risser said several states have programs to focus on turning research and technology into commercial opportunities, jobs and big bucks for state coffers. But most of the programs have a strict focus like cancer or energy. EDGE makes money available for eight sectors from aerospace to agriculture to weather science. That allows funding of projects that cross multiple disciplines.

"Some of the most innovative proposals cross disciplines. This allows us to focus on the ideas and not pigeon hole based on one area of focus," Risser said. The tough part of that breadth, he said, is having an advisory committee with wide-ranging expertise to help evaluate proposals.

In the year since the first awards, Risser said three states - Ohio, Missouri and Texas - have expressed interested in the EDGE model. We expect more interest will follow as the program ages and has more money to disburse.

Investing in our own future is tough to do when there's not an immediate payoff. But it's absolutely the right thing to do.

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