Working together: Companies, Iowa schools mutually benefit from partnerships

December 8, 2017 | Working together: Companies, Iowa schools mutually benefit from partnerships

Vermeer Corporation knew there was potential for a unique relationship with Iowa State University when the company opened a location at the university’s research park.

The industrial and agricultural equipment manufacturer wanted to leverage the technology and resources available at the university while recruiting and retaining the brightest students for its company, headquartered in Pella.

“Students are in high demand, and trying to capture the best and brightest for internships and long term as full-time employees is important,” said Sara Hunter, who oversees Vermeer’s day-to-day partnership with Iowa State.


Iowa State and its students benefit just as much from the partnership.

“They gain real-world experience with challenging, long-term projects that provide valuable customer solutions,” Hunter said.

A capstone team of senior students designed the structure and components of a horizontal directional drill simulator. Vermeer engineers thought the idea was promising and allowed professors and graduate students to create the software to operate the program.

The simulator is now used in various ways. It gives sixth- and ninth-grade students an opportunity to learn about aspects of advanced manufacturing and receive hands-on experience during the company’s annual Manufacturing Day event, said Teri Vos, Vermeer’s community relations manager, who works with student engagement for the company.

It also gives Vermeer a chance to train and certify operators on using drilling equipment, and to demonstrate to customers and the public how horizontal drilling works and has less affect on streets and the environment, Hunter said.

“Before people take jobs in drilling, they don’t know what they don’t know,” Vos said. “To have the simulator demonstrates a career path. It wouldn’t exist without the ISU partnership.”

The ISU-Vermeer partnership also provides the company flexible office space for its full-time employees to work and for students who are working on projects for Vermeer. The connection with ISU also exposes more students to the Vermeer brand and shows the employment options beyond engineering or working on the manufacturing floor, Hunter said.

Twenty ISU students also are participating in the Vermeer International Leadership Program, where they receive a $2,000 scholarship, a site visit to a Vermeer international location and an opportunity to take leadership classes for a year.

“From day one, the Iowa State partnership with Vermeer has really showcased what is possible when a globally recognized leader like Vermeer partners with Iowa State,” said Dr. Michael R. Crum, vice president for economic development and business engagement at ISU. “Vermeer is focused on growing their workforce and developing leaders, building smarter machines, and they have also been an instrumental partner in our ISU Startup Factory effort to commercialize the latest in technology and create companies. Our relationship with Vermeer is truly a showcase of what our economic development efforts are about.”


University of Iowa professor Michael Henry and associate professor Sarah Vigmostad thought they had developed technology within Henry’s Iowa laboratory that was worth pursuing. University officials agreed, and a mentor worked with the duo to apply for patents for the ideas to own the intellectual property basis for their idea to create a device that enables rapid separation of benign and malignant cells to improve cancer diagnostic and research applications.

They formed SynderBio in January 2016, located at the university’s Translational Research Incubator. This facility, located on campus, gives startup companies additional space to conduct work while being close to professors’ offices and laboratories.

Jordan Kauffman, director of startups in the office of research and economic development, mentored the two and guided them through creating a business plan to develop the company, as well as apply for two Small Business Innovation Research grants that helped get the company going and testing Henry and Vigmostad’s ideas.

“If we would have had to figure that out ourselves, we would have wasted so much time and made mistakes,” Henry said.

Paying a reasonable lease amount for laboratory space also has helped the company expand and hire its first employee.

“It would have been really expensive for us to start our own laboratory space at the stage the company is now,” Henry said.

The university also has taken on some of the early financial risk for the startup, helping it get through the “valley of death,” as Henry described it, so SynderBio can get grants and begin research to draw the interest of other companies that will begin to invest in the company and its idea.

UI benefits because it owns the intellectual property and has a royalty stake in the company as it begins to generate revenue, he said.

“The university definitely is interested in having the company be successful and is helping us out in this early stage,” said Henry, who is also the deputy director of research for the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“When we did this originally, we weren’t intending to develop some technology that might change the world, but it emerged,” he continued. “Without this support, we wouldn’t have been able to get this off of the ground.”

Viewpoint Molecular Targeting has a similar relationship with UI. It’s located in the BioVentures Center at the research park in Coralville. Mike Schultz, an associate professor of radiology at UI, developed the idea for the company and co-founded it.

Schultz took his idea of a new therapy to treat the lethal skin cancer metastatic melanoma to the university’s research foundation, which helped him apply for patents and ownership of the intellectual property. His idea was investible enough that he received space in the research park. The space has given Schultz economically feasible laboratory space to conduct research and perform testing.

“That’s critical,” he said. “You have to have some space to do lab operations outside of the main campus. Because of the conflict of interest, you can’t mix company activities and space at the university.”

The partnership has given Viewpoint a physical building, which the company would not have been able to afford on its own, as well as guidance in applying for SBIR grants to conduct the research and development in order to persuade the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to conduct clinical trials.

Developing a partnership with the university requires give and take from both parties, Schultz said.

“They are trying to get the best position they can and at the same time trying to protect itself from a deal that might make it less likely that an external pharmaceutical company might acquire us,” he said.


The University of Northern Iowa’s metal casting and additive manufacturing centers have since 1989 helped dozens of Iowa companies and foundries, as well as companies throughout the United States and North America, create products and problem-shoot issues.

Last year, more than 750 visitors came to the additive manufacturing facility alone, and the centers receive telephone calls, emails and personal requests daily for assistance. Metal castings are used in about 97 percent of the durable goods produced in the United States, according to UNI. The centers have projects that range from the simplest castings for five-person companies to work with the U.S. military on submarines.

“We have a great deal of resources and experience in the metal casting industry that we can bring to the companies that they will not have as far as testing equipment and experience in characterizing industrial materials,” said Jerry Thiel, the director of UNI’s metal casting and additive manufacturing centers. “This is a very unique facility and organization, where we have the ability to provide services and experience and consultation really not available at any other university.”

Currently, the metal casting center is working with Sivyer Steel Corp. in Bettendorf to run tests and experiments to solve an issue that is slowing production and costing the company money, he said.

At any given time, the centers are conducting projects for about 25 companies, as well as the federal government. The centers help companies that cannot afford the resources UNI has with their smaller budgets. Between 5 percent and 10 percent of the centers’ work is community service for municipalities such as the cities of Waterloo and Cedar Falls.

“That’s where centers like ours can really benefit the industry by housing those resources and maintaining those resources and really understanding their operation,” Thiel said. “Research and development isn’t something a normal small business can achieve. They don’t have the resources or the experience.”

Companies pay for the centers’ services depending upon the scope and extent of the research involved. Smaller projects are completed for free. The centers benefit from the experience their students receive, as well as the profit they make to continue operations.

“Our students get to practice what they learn in the classroom at a higher level than any type of classroom training could teach them,” Thiel said.

One of those projects is to design a part for a V-8 engine for a tractor that will be reproduced in larger quantities in a manufacturing plant. Students receive experience in reverse engineering, cast drafting and process simulation, all of which helps the company succeed in producing the item it needs.

The additive manufacturing center also helps produce parts, as well as determining the properties that work best for a particular molding material for different Iowa companies. This gives students the experience in researching how standard materials used for molding products compare with new additives, Thiel said.

This helps the company “come up with ways they can improve upon what they’re doing and the parts they’re producing,” he said.