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News >  Idaho

Dispute surrounds UI tech center

When Gary Maki returned to the University of Idaho in 2002 after a 10-year absence, he was greeted as an economic savior for the region.

Maki, a renowned scientist whose microchips have been part of many of the biggest space exploration projects of recent years, brought his research team and a history of big NASA grants, breakthrough discoveries and the promise of high-tech spinoff companies.

Then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne termed Maki’s return from the University of New Mexico “huge.” Sen. Mike Crapo predicted it would “provide liftoff” for the UI’s Post Falls research park.

Five years later, the research park hasn’t lifted off, at least not on the scale of those early high hopes. And Maki – while attracting millions a year in grants and cementing a reputation as a leading scientist in his field – has been drawing a different kind of public attention.

A university audit, completed in December 2005 and released in September 2006, concluded that Maki and others at the Center for Advanced Microelectronics and Biomolecular Research (CAMBR) deliberately used university resources to benefit two spinoff companies. Now the Idaho attorney general’s office is investigating whether the problems there amounted to criminal activity. Meanwhile, a CAMBR researcher has sued UI, saying he was punished for blowing the whistle on problems at the center.

At the heart of the concerns are the relationships among CAMBR and the two spinoff companies, which make and market the tiny electronics the center invents. The companies were started by Maki and his colleagues, who have financial interests in them.

It’s not an uncommon arrangement, especially as universities push to move more of their research into the marketplace, but it’s one ripe for mismanagement and conflicts of interest, critics say.

David Egolf is a longtime professor at UI who was chairman of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the 1990s. He said he worked to prevent Maki’s return because of similar concerns over the blurring of public and private interests by him and his team.

“I told the dean several times, ‘Over my dead body,’ ” Egolf said. “He works on the edge between legality and illegality, between ethics and a lack of ethics, and he always has.”

UI administrators say most of the problems identified in the audit have been corrected, including the addition of better business oversight at the center. But the auditor also wrote that CAMBR management appeared to consider the problems minor, when compared with the center’s overall operation.

Maki’s critics – several of whom have contacted reporters and administrators with their concerns in recent months, though few would speak on the record – tend to portray him as someone who routinely flouts the rules and gets away with it. His supporters praise him as a visionary researcher and teacher; they say his high profile and quality work are a huge asset for the UI.

Maki would not comment for this article, saying he’s been directed by administrators not to do so. University President Tim White said problems at CAMBR stemmed from a lack of business savvy, not malfeasance, and Maki and his team are doing important work for both the university’s and Idaho’s hopes for developing a high-tech future.

Asked if the leadership at CAMBR took the audit seriously, White said, “Absolutely. Absolutely. … There’s been a lot of learning here.

“CAMBR is a complicated enterprise, and there were a series of issues that required attention. Many of them have been fully resolved and quickly resolved,” he said.

‘Cauldron of activity’

For an indication of Maki’s importance in the UI universe, consider that he’s paid nearly as well as the school’s football coach. At more than $176,000 a year in base salary, he’s the 13th-highest-paid employee of the state of Idaho, earning more than the governor.

Maki’s supporters and colleagues say his operation has benefited UI in many ways, from giving students a front-row seat at the development of cutting-edge space technology to bringing more than $13 million in grant dollars into the North Idaho economy so far.

CAMBR is now practically an independent operation, at least financially. Federal research grants cover the cost for everything from salaries to general CAMBR operations. For fiscal year 2006, UI provided roughly $137,000 to the center, or less than 4 percent of the budget for the 18-person operation.

Maki’s team has also produced at least 15 patents and has 11 patent applications pending, according to UI. The center’s microchips, which are designed to operate on extremely low power in environments of heavy radiation, have been a part of several high-profile NASA projects, including the Hubble Space Telescope.

UI says 90 percent of upcoming missions through the Goddard Space Flight Center are expected to include CAMBR technologies.

CAMBR’s success has not, however, led to a flourishing of new high-tech businesses at the Post Falls research park. A year after it opened in 1998 near the outlet malls, the park had nine small businesses; it now lists three private corporations as tenants. Two government offices and a handful of UI offices are also there.

Even if the number of businesses has changed, though, the park’s one building is full. But plans to add a second building, which have been discussed for several years, have not moved forward.

The former director of the center, Doug McQueen, complained when he left in 2005 that the park had been hampered by limited funding from UI.

White acknowledged that there had been a desire for more growth at the park, but said it has become a center for important collaborations between university departments and the surrounding community. UI says the research center has added 70 jobs to the region and has helped more than 40 companies move to Kootenai or Spokane counties.

“My general view is positive,” White said. “It’s a cauldron of activity there.”

Supporters of the center say that while it hasn’t generated scores of new companies and jobs in the last five years, it still may.

“Research, in my experience, always works that way,” said Joe Feeley, a former UI faculty member and administrator. “A lot of effort for a long time with minimal results – and then, if you’re lucky, you hit it big.”

Feeley, now retired from UI, oversaw Maki’s hiring and now is the sole paid employee of one of the companies Maki founded, ICs LLC. He said Maki has always had his share of detractors, but he considers him an invaluable resource for the university, as a researcher, a teacher and a public voice for the university.

“I trust him implicitly,” said Feeley, who now lives in McCall. “I think he’s going through a hard time.”

Feeley’s own relationship to ICs is the kind of thing that troubles some critics. Feeley said he felt there was nothing improper in accepting a job with ICs since he had retired from UI.

Egolf described it as one of the too-close-for-comfort relationships surrounding CAMBR.

“It’s like politicians going to work for the companies they’ve helped as legislators,” he said. “It’s certainly not illegal, but it’s on the edge.”

Maki’s supporters say he’s only done what research universities are pushing their scientists to do: develop intellectual property and move it toward the market. Universities typically allow researchers to profit from companies spun off from their research – largely as an incentive to prevent them from leaving.

The question in the case of CAMBR, though, is how well-protected UI resources were, and whether they were being used improperly to enrich people on the university payroll.

Kenneth Hass, a CAMBR researcher who has sued UI alleging he was punished for blowing the whistle, says there was a consistent “blurring of the lines.”

Conflicts go back

Two private companies have emerged from Maki’s research: ICs LLC, a corporation owned by Maki and former CAMBR researcher Jody Gambles; and Concise Logic, a New Mexico-based corporation that sprung up around work the team developed there.

Maki and his colleagues founded the companies and have ownership interests in them. Until the recent audit, ICs had a profit-sharing agreement with CAMBR employees, the UI auditor found.

The company was, until recently, located at CAMBR but has since moved to another office in Post Falls. It paid a CAMBR employee roughly $20,000 a year to do ICs business during university hours, the auditor found, and relied on a university employee to test its microchips.

These conflicts and others violated state regulations and an agreement signed by Maki in December 2004 that stated, in part, “Employees will not conduct ICs business on University time or use University facilities for ICs projects or business.”

The problems identified in the UI audit began even before Maki and his team moved back from New Mexico.

More than $1.7 million in state and federal money was spent to set them up at CAMBR in UI’s research park in Post Falls. Some of that was a federal Housing and Urban Development grant intended to fund economic development initiatives.

The Idaho Board of Education approved an increase in the limit on moving expenses for CAMBR employees, from $5,000 to $7,500 each. One employee, however, spent roughly $26,000 on moving, including six trips back and forth between UI and New Mexico. The audit did not identify the employee, who sought reimbursement through the HUD grant for $18,000 of the expenses. CAMBR eventually absorbed more than $10,000 of those costs.

A pattern that emerged, the auditor found, was the hiring of family members. Since 2002, five family members of CAMBR employees were hired through “non-competitive means.”

“At one point in CAMBR’s history, 10 employees or 50 percent of its staff could claim family relationships with other CAMBR employees,” the auditor wrote.

The couple suing UI, Kenneth and Martha Hass, both worked at CAMBR until recently. Martha has since gone to work elsewhere.

The auditor reported that CAMBR “management” considered the problems relatively minor, given the millions of dollars CAMBR brings in. The auditor wrote that in the midst of the auditing process – as the center was answering questions about potential conflicts of interest – CAMBR employees accepted a free cruise on Lake Coeur d’Alene and dinner from a company seeking to do business with UI.

Long-distance relationship

UI’s agreement with CAMBR allowed a handful of employees to remain in New Mexico. For two years, the university paid $2,000 a month for the rental of office space for CAMBR in Albuquerque – a home owned by Gambles. White said he ended that arrangement in 2005, and UI now pays $1,800 a month for commercial space in Albuquerque.

“My predecessor allowed that rental of one of the (researcher’s) property to be used for CAMBR activities,” White said. “When that renewal was brought to my attention, I said, ‘I don’t like that. No.’ “

But he doesn’t blame anyone at CAMBR for the arrangement.

“They asked, and the president said yes,” White said.

Three employees remain in New Mexico, including two major CAMBR researchers, Sterling Whitaker and Lowell Miles. About 12 percent of CAMBR’s overall budget is spent on the New Mexico operation, UI records show.

White said allowing the researchers to remain in New Mexico was an accommodation that doesn’t hurt CAMBR efforts, and he noted that many members of the university’s faculty operate at least part of the time away from the Moscow campus. He said CAMBR’s high-profile role in space exploration and science education can have a ripple effect for the whole state – helping to lend Idaho high-tech credibility in a global economy.

Egolf and others, though, say the New Mexico branch is unique at UI, and operates outside of significant university oversight.

“I’ve never heard of anything like it before,” Egolf said. “Absolutely never.”

White and Provost Doug Baker said the issues surrounding the lawsuit, audit and complaints have been largely settled. White said a new administrator has taken over at the park, and more stringent business practices are in place.

“There is very little hallway conversation anymore about this issue,” White said. “I think people have confidence in the administration, that we’re serious about identifying problems and fixing them.”

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