In the end, Matt Kramer’s departure from the University of Minnesota was a lot more low key than his hiring less than a year ago.
With great fanfare, the school had hired Kramer in July 2009 to run what was then known as the Academic and Corporate Relations Center. The university had good reason to crow: at the time, Kramer was chief of staff to Gov. Tim Pawlenty and a former commissioner of the state’s Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED).
Eleven months later, Kramer bolted the university to become president of the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce. In truth, Kramer was already thinking about his departure last December, a mere five months on the job, after a recruiter contacted him about the St. Paul job.
In an interview, Kramer said he enjoyed his time at the university but needed to seize a “great opportunity” in St. Paul. Through his brief tenure, Kramer said he helped establish a firm foundation for the school to build upon.
Kramer would never say this but I suspect he quickly outgrew the office, which has shed both size and clout over the past few years. Not long ago, the Academic and Corporate Relations Center (ACR) was key component of President Robert Bruininks plan to repair the university’s fractured relationship with the business community.
Critics complained it was too hard to do business with university because of its large bureaucracy. At the time, the school’s Office for Technology Commercialization (OTC) was understaffed and ineffectual. What was needed, university officials say, was a “front door” for the business community, a central entry point for companies wanting to collaborate with the university.
But under Jay Schrankler and Doug Johnson, OTC beefed up its operations and gradually improved its performance and stature with the business community. For example, OTC has been hosting industry showcases, a chance for outside companies and investors to view the university’s research in medical technology, drugs, and clean energy.
So where did that leave ACR?
When Kramer took the job, he realized that his office overlapped with OTC in many areas. Both reported to vice president of research Tim Mulcahy but it was OTC that managed relationships with big companies like Medtronic Inc., 3M, and Big Pharma.
“We’re always going to do work with Medtronic or Boston Scientific but those are the type of engagements that take many months to work out,” Kramer said in an earlier interview. I’m not involved with that because OTC does that. We wanted to hit all of the other things that are very easy to use.”
So at Kramer’s suggestion, the university pulled ACR out of Mulcahy’s group and renamed it the Office of Business Relations (OBR). Total staff shrunk from five to two. The group’s new mission was to market the university’s operations to small to medium-sized businesses around the state.
“The opportunity here was to take this unit and create a bigger footprint than we had,” Kramer said earlier. “The sales and marketing challenge is to take this small unit and huge institution and how do you connect with businesses all over the state. We need a way to get in front of many of those businesses as possible.”
“It’s not enough to talk to the 3Ms, Cargills, and Medtronics of the world,” he continued. “We also have to connect to the grocery store in Luverne and the small manufacturing operation in Perham. It’s absolutlely key that [these businesses] understand and are able to leverage the value the university brings to the mid to the small market just as much we have a lot of resources that apply to Medtronic.”
Reaching out to small businesses is certainly a worthy job. But let’s face it: collaborating on a new medical device with Medtronic probably carries a bit more prestige at the university than advising a grocery store in rural Minnesota.
At the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce, Kramer will rub shoulders with bigwigs like 3M, St. Jude Medical Inc., and Travelers Inc. and work on meaty projects like the planned Central Corridor light rail transit line that will connect Minneapolis to St. Paul.
As Kramer himself noted, at the university, he was one person trying to carry out a mission in a large institution full of missions.
But “in St. Paul, I am the mission,” Kramer said.
It’s too bad Kramer left the university. Perhaps he was just the right man for the wrong job. Certainly someone of Kramer’s stature and political connections could help the university in its often contentious dealings with the governor and state legislature.
And the university’s relationship with the business community still remains very much a work in progress. In my previous interview, I asked whether the school had made any progress in that area.
“I can’t really answer that question,” Kramer said at the time. “I’ve only been here six or seven months. We are starting to make a difference. It’s a start. If I had to measure, we went from here beneath my shoe to a little bit up.”