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[November 16, 2012]
Robotics conference holds out hope for industry's promise in Twin Cities
Nov 16, 2012 (Pioneer Press - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Minnesota is vying to become the nation's leader in robotics development. But if it gets there, it may not be able to count on a lot of state support, the head of the state's high-tech association says.
"Money is always short," Margaret Anderson Kelliher, CEO of the Minnesota High Tech Association told the Robotics Alley conference Thursday, Nov. 15, in Edina. "We need to make critical choices about where we're going to focus critical incentives." Kelliher is a former speaker of the Minnesota House and a one-time candidate for governor.
Supporters of robotics tout it as the next great high-tech industry, capable of taking off over the next decade the way information technology and computers did a generation ago.
The Twin Cities, along with Pittsburgh, Boston and the San Jose area in California, are jostling to become leading centers of robotics and its related field, called advanced manufacturing.
But while about 30 states are making significant investments in their science and technology industries, Minnesota devotes almost nothing, said Chip Laingen, executive director of a regional group called the Defense Alliance. The alliance secured funding a couple of years ago from the U.S. Small Business Administration to fund companies that want to do business with the military on battery and alternative energy projects.
The agency was a source of early-stage funding for companies with few other options locally, he said.
"If you're a startup in Woodbury, I would advise you to look a few miles to the east in Hudson, because (Wisconsin) is literally going to throw money at you," he told the conferees of robotics business leaders and advocates.
Kelliher said one encouraging sign for the industry is that the University of Minnesota has made robotics one of four areas where it wants to focus research and development dollars.
The Twin Cities also has a wealth of talented people who have made innovation and technology one of the region's strengths, said Michael Langley, CEO of Greater MSP, a public-private partnership that has been trying to market the region to outsiders.
But Gov. Mark Dayton's senior adviser on job creation warned that the state has little money to spend on economic development and is looking to be efficient.
"There's got to be agreement between the Legislature and the governor on the top priorities," Kathy Tunheim, his adviser and a public relations executive, said.
Meanwhile, Twin Cities companies in the robotics industry are looking for new ways to grow on their own.
Par Systems, a Shoreview firm that began 51 years ago making robotic systems for nuclear power plants, this summer bought a small Oakdale manufacturing startup called OakRiver that works in the medical device field.
OakRiver helps medical device makers automate their manufacturing processes, and Par was interested in it because Par wanted to get involved in the region's hot medical technology industry, diversifying from its core customers in heavy industry.
Par is researching new ideas such as adapting its laser-equipped robotic arms, which precisely remove paint without touching the surface underneath, from a factory to a hospital setting.
Those robot-controlled lasers could remove damaged tissue from burn victims, possibly with less pain and more efficiency than current methods, said Karen Knoblock, Par's marketing director.
"We held this session that we called a 'Big Ideas' session, and talked," she said. "Because we have all these technologies, and it's 'What's next ' " Leslie Brooks Suzukamo can be reached at 651-228-5475. Follow him at twitter.com/suzukamo.
___ (c)2012 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.) Visit the Pioneer Press (St.
Paul, Minn.) at www.twincities.com Distributed by MCT Information Services
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