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Science & tech foundation is nearly extinct

State provider of venture capital may succumb to governor's ax

Posted: Sunday, April 20, 2003

Hans Roeterink, executive director for the Alaska Science and Technology Foundation, has less than a week to convince lawmakers in the state Senate not to cut his program.

ASTF provides venture capital to technology and science startup companies, helps fund technology research, and awards education grants to math and science teachers throughout the state.

"What we try to do is create companies in the state of Alaska that are science-based or technology-based that make use of renewable resources, which is human capital," Roeterink said.

"We're trying to make the case that ASTF is the only source of venture capital here in the state and that the university is training kids to be technologically savvy kids," he said. "But we don't have technology companies where they can land, so basically we're creating our own brain-drain."

The foundation was created by the Legislature in 1988 with a $100 million endowment. Gov. Frank Murkowski has decided to cut the program as part of his $2.169 billion budget.

The $87 million ASTF endowment that remains today would go to the general fund, which is used to pay for government services. Under Murkowski's plan, ASTF would be dissolved on May 15.

That would leave science and technology projects and startup businesses across the state without grant funding.

Ron Long, hatchery director for the Qutekcak Shellfish Hatchery in Seward, said its ASTF grant would be cut by $170,000 if ASTF is shut down.

The hatchery was approved for the $554,000 grant in 2000 to produce commercial quantities of farmed geoduck clams and purple-hinged rock scallops.

"If it's cut out, I will need to find an alternate source of funding to complete the work," Long said.

If ASTF is dissolved, Long said he would ask the state to find another way to complete the project. If that approach fails, Long said he would have to turn to the business sector - possibly out of state - to find funding.

"I would hate to go out of state, and of course (another business) would expect something in return," he said. "We wanted to be part of Alaska's resource economy, not somebody else's."

Long noted that without the help of ASTF the project - which could generate a viable industry for the state - probably would not have been funded at all.

Roeterink pointed to other success stories spawned by ASTF.

He said ASTF helped fund a project in Anchorage to design permeable wave barriers that allow water to circulate in harbors. That prevents water from becoming stagnant and lessens the environmental footprint left by docks and harbors.

The floating wave barriers are about $4,000 cheaper to install than others, Roeterink said.

"You can create a harbor for ships without having to dump all these piles of stone and rock on the ocean floor," he said.

But although some projects have had a positive impact on Alaska's economy, Murkowski said many of the projects funded through ASTF are of questionable benefit.

"I'm not suggesting that there haven't been some meaningful contributions, but I think it's fair to say that in the time frame we're in now and the priorities that we've got that we have to look to specific returns on investments," Murkowski said in a Thursday press conference.

He pointed to a $1.12 million grant awarded to a University of California Los Angeles professor to commercialize radioactive waste-treatment technology.

"It's pretty hard to relate that to a return for Alaska," Murkowski said.

A document released by Murkowski on Thursday also listed grants awarded for a needle exchange program in Anchorage, a smoking cessation program, and a workshop for Russian nuclear plant workers as of questionable benefit to the state.

The House of Representatives passed its version of the operating budget last week, cutting all but $250,000 from the ASTF endowment, to keep it running for at least another year.

The Senate Finance Committee is set to pass its operating budget this week, which will then head to the full Senate for a final vote.

The House and Senate then will meet to work out the differences between the two plans.

Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at timothyi@juneauempire.com.



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