- Associated Press - Saturday, November 1, 2014

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) - It’s no coincidence that Purdue University fought hard to keep professor Philip Low when he was nearly lured away for another position five years ago.

It’s high-profile faculty members such as Low who the university count on to keep a steady influx of research grants, which have become harder to come by with increased competition stemming from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus drying up. Low, who teaches chemistry and serves as director of Purdue’s Center for Drug Discovery, is a renowned expert in his field who has won national and international awards.

“We need to attract and keep the best minds,” Low told the Journal & Courier (http://on.jconline.com/1wFoyNw ). “That’s the most important element to any university’s success.”

And it’s not just Purdue that benefits from increased attention and funding - the economic fortunes of Greater Lafayette hinge in large part on the financial well-being of the university, the region’s top employer.

With nearly 16,000 faculty and staff, almost 38,000 students and 4,200 employees working for more than 236 companies at Purdue Research Park, the university is a crucial economic engine that drives the community.

“Purdue University was built here first and West Lafayette was built around it,” said John Dennis, mayor of West Lafayette. “What is the impact of oxygen on your survival?”

So the region needs Purdue to breathe - but Purdue first needs to keep getting grants that not only build prestige, but also draw donors and investors.

In Low’s case, he said he’s successful at attracting federal, philanthropic and corporate funding because the 25 employees in his lab are developing drugs to treat illnesses such as heart disease, various cancers, malaria and autoimmune diseases.

Over at the Department of Nutrition Science, Connie Weaver has built a reputation of her own as a distinguished researcher. She has an established track record of winning grants from the National Institutes of Health for her work on calcium metabolism and its impact on building bone mass and slowing bone loss.

But it has become more difficult to find substantial funding, she said.

“I write twice as many grants as I did in 2008,” Weaver said. “I need two major grants to keep my permanent staff busy.”

Nine people, five employees and four graduate students bank on Weaver to keep coming through with more grants.

So far, she has. The leading federal medical research agency, the National Institutes of Health, last month awarded Weaver a five-year $3.7 million grant to study how blueberries reduce bone loss in postmenopausal women.

And new grants keep coming. On Wednesday, Purdue announced that Weaver’s colleague, nutrition policy professor Dennis Savaiano, will direct the North Central Nutrition Education Center of Excellence. It will be one of four regional centers set up as part of a two-year $4 million project from the U.S. Department of Agriculture examining nutrition education and obesity prevention.

“Impoverished and disadvantaged populations generally eat lower-quality diets and are more food insecure,” Savaiano said. “This center will focus its research on improving food availability and diet quality for this at-risk group.”

The race to the top in the grant game may have intensified in recent years, but it actually began at Purdue decades ago.

David E. Ross, a mechanical engineering graduate, started Ross Gear and Tooling Co. in Lafayette in 1906, the first of his four manufacturing corporations that employed hundreds of people.

In 1930, the inventor donated $25,000 to create Purdue Research Foundation, a nonprofit organization that accesses university research and signs contracts with industrial companies.

The public research institution grew to rely on grants from federal agencies, including the National Science Foundation, Department of Defense and Department of Health and Human Services.

The approach took hold, setting a guiding principle on campus symbolized by the “Campaign for Purdue” established by former president Martin Jischke. The effort raised nearly $2 billion in private donations that in part funded construction of Discovery Park. It also laid the foundation for the Drug Discovery Center, where Low and his team conduct their research.

Continuing to push for increased grant funding amid an intensified competitive atmosphere has been one of the leading mantras for President Mitch Daniels. Toward that end, he appointed Suresh Garimella to lead the Office for Research and Partnerships.

“We are bolstering our efforts to increase our portfolio beyond federal and state agencies through increased industry/foundation support (and) non-governmental agency and international partnerships worldwide,” Garimella said.

The result in fiscal year 2014 was a near-record $389 million in research grants - with funding from industry and foundations accounting for 25 percent.

Tasked to increase that percentage, the university added Dan Hirleman to its roster of administrators. He was hired in July as chief corporate and global partnerships officer to make Purdue the long-term “partner of choice” for corporations and foundations.

“To sit down and say, ‘In five years what types of situations will you be calling Purdue about?’ ” Hirleman said. “We want to anticipate where we will be together in five years and go after faculty in these strategic areas and find investments to develop facilities in those areas.”

Purdue’s vast and powerful alumni network is another way the university works its connections and relationships on the corporate side.

Rolls-Royce, the British aerospace, marine and energy manufacturer, runs one of its North America operations in Indianapolis, where 708 of its 1,500 engineers are Purdue graduates, according to company spokesman Joel Reuters.

In 2002, Rolls-Royce established its first North American university technology center at Purdue, where engineers develop jet engine technology for high-speed aircraft that one day could be used in the first stage of a satellite launcher or to transport crews to space labs or colonies.

The Purdue-Rolls-Royce connection runs strong and deep, according to Dennis Warner, president of controls and data services for Rolls-Royce North America. His duties include working with Purdue engineering researchers.

“It’s absolutely vital,” he said. “We have a lot of high-technology needs to satisfy, and in our business, we face a lot of competition.”

Energy aviation and appliance giant GE also has strong ties to Purdue, from recruiting top students to connecting with researchers, according to Tony Denhart, a 1989 graduate who works as GE’s university relations manager.

“We can make magic when we have a strategic approach and align the university’s area of expertise to a technology gap or need within the company,” Denhart said.

He took part in GE Aviation’s decision to build a $100 million jet engine manufacturing plant that is expected to create 200 jobs on the south side of Lafayette.

Blood serum samples analyzed for mineral content in a lab inside Stone Hall on the campus of Purdue University. Purdue is a major economic engine for Greater Lafayette, but what would happen if federal research grants get leaner? Boom or bust cycles are catching up with campuses that added labs, buildings and professors during highly funded years.

Out of Ross’ initial dream came Purdue Research Park, an emblem of how the university is inextricably linked economically to the Greater Lafayette community and beyond.

A 2011 study by Thomas P. Miller and Associates examined the economic impact of the research park’s network, including branches in West Lafayette, Indianapolis, Merrillville and New Albany: 236 companies employing 4,200 people providing a $1.3 billion infusion to the Indiana economy.

West Lafayette’s share was $188 million, according to the report. But the city is no idling bystander. West Side leaders feel just as responsible as their campus counterparts on contributing to its success. That’s no coincidence since the city stands to gain just as much as Purdue. It’s about making it as much as a win-win as possible.

“When we make pitches to companies to come here, they are interested in attaching it to Purdue’s knowledge base,” said Chandler Poole, West Lafayette economic development director. “And when companies come to the research park, they want to know the community wants them here, too.”

The evident quid pro quo equates into turning West Lafayette into a high quality-of-life destination - moderate prices for upscale homes, abundant green space including parks and trails, bike-friendly streets, good schools, low crime - not only for Purdue faculty and staff but also for the employees and families that companies and corporations bring here.

“We are in the supporting role of saying, ‘If you want to live here, this is what it’s going to be like, and it’s awesome,’ ” Poole said.

The city-university partnership even expands to the infrastructure level, as the two entities team up to design a streetscape for State Street, Purdue’s main thoroughfare, as well as additional development projects planned for the nearly 4,000 acres West Lafayette annexed a year ago.

“We’re asking, ‘What do you guys want to do out here? What are you envisioning? How do you want to zone it?’” Poole said. “It’s a large blank canvas that we will paint together.”

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Information from: Journal and Courier, http://www.jconline.com

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