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The business of the University is the welfare of the state

Matt Kramer knows business, and he knows people. Now he’s getting to know the U.

By Adam Overland

Matt Kramer
Matt Kramer was recently named director of the Office of Business Relations

October 28, 2009

The inscription chiseled above the stone pillars of Northrop reads, in part, that the University of Minnesota is devoted to the welfare of the state; founded in the faith that people are ennobled by understanding. We often think of the University as set of pillared buildings where learners and teachers meet, but engagement and outreach require taking the U beyond the pillars and into the streets.

Often, effective engagement comes in the form of aiding businesses, and with the economy on shaky ground and the future financing of the University in sway, now is the time for highly effective engagement. New leadership in the Office of Business Relations (OBR) might just hold the key.

Matt Kramer knows business, and he knows people. In fact, Kramer knows pretty much nearly every major business, chamber executive, and economic development leader in the state, having served as a senior executive at the former Control Data Systems, as commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development from January 2003 until April 2006, and most recently as Gov. Pawlenty's chief of staff.

Now Kramer is getting to know the U. He’s not afraid to admit, albeit in a tongue-and-cheek fashion, that he’s the right person for the job. "I've got just enough of a reputation that when I call them up, they don't hang-up on me," he says. It's a big start to getting an invitation to talk about how the U really is devoted to the welfare of Minnesota. Kramer's already spoken at chamber of commerce and trade association meetings around the state, with 20 more scheduled. "A year from now we will have reached thousands of businesses, of all sizes, across the entire state," he says.

It seems believable coming from someone who led the creation of both a new bioscience industry program and the JOBZ (Job Opportunity Building Zones) initiative, which has generated nearly $1 billion in capital investment in Minnesota.

Talent, training, and technology

Kramer isn’t here, and OBR doesn’t exist, just to promote the University’s nation-leading research programs, as is so often misunderstood by businesses. "The OBR links our best products--our students, faculty, and outreach staff--to the businesses that will benefit from their education and expertise," says Karen Himle, vice president for University Relations. "The partnership between the University and Minnesota's businesses is and will continue to be one of this region's inherent strengths."

Kramer is letting businesses know about the talent at the U, telling them how to hire U graduates by connecting with them through Goldpass on the OBR Web site. And he’s promoting the training the U offers. "This is professional development that companies invest in all the time to improve the quality of their workers," he says. "We want every business in the state to know how to gain access to these services."

Every business in the state—that’s an important point. Kramer believes that people often think, "’The U can’t help me. I’m not 3M or General Mills or Medtronic.' What we're trying to emphasize to businesses of all sizes is 'Wait a second, that's not true.'"

Lately, he’s been pitching Nora Paul and her research at the Institute for New Media. "She's trying to figure out how best to use Facebook and Twitter. That kind of thing is incredibly valuable if you're a business person," says Kramer. "If you're running a little drug store and you're afraid your customers are [going to go to a big chain store,] how you can use social media to tie into those customers so that they feel good about your store [is critical]."
And Kramer insists that there are plenty of colleges within the University that are as applicable to business as those that dwell among electron microscopes or medical devices. His aim is to connect these colleges with business for the mutual benefit of the University and Minnesota.

"It's right there in our University enabling legislation from 1851--we are in part responsible for the economic success of this state. If you're a Minnesota company--and I want to lay that on heavy, although we obviously help companies anywhere in the world--if you're a Minnesota company, we want you to leverage the talent, training, and technology of the U so you're more competitive."

And Kramer wants researchers here at the U to know that OBR represents them. "OBR puts the University in front of the business community so that they see the value in what we do. We don't pretend that every business is going to be able to take our research and apply it. But a lot of businesses, you give them the tool, they're going to figure out how best to use it."

For more information, see the Office of Business Relations or e-mail OBR.