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Donation contingent on matching funds from state Legislature

JUDITH YATES BORGER STAFF WRITER | St. Paul Pioneer Press (MN) | September 8, 1999

Cargill Inc. Tuesday gave the University of Minnesota $10 million to expand the university's study of microbes and plant genetics.

It was the largest gift in Cargill's history and the largest cash gift the university has received from a corporation.

The donation will pay for half of a $20 million Microbial and Plant Genomics Institute building on the St. Paul campus, but is contingent on matching funds from the state Legislature.

Microbes are living organisms too small to see with the naked eye, such as bacteria. Genomics is the study of DNA, the most basic building blocks of living things. The new institute will explore the use of DNA in areas such as cleaning toxic spills, searching for new plant sources of energy and creating new medications.

Cargill put no restraints on how the gift may be used and will have access to research that may come out of the new institute, as will any other company that finds it useful.

"Outcomes of the research will remain in the public domain," university President Mark Yudof said.

Warren Staley, chief executive officer of Cargill, said the company gave the money to the university, rather than spending it on internal research, because "some things transcend Cargill."

He acknowledged the $10 million would be a better investment at the university than using it in Cargill's own research efforts. The institute is part of a university plan to spend $157 million in genetics research in the near future.

Agribusiness has been languishing in recent years, and Cargill, the largest agribusiness company in the world, last year felt the effects. Cargill's revenues declined 15 percent, to $46 billion, in the past fiscal year. Earnings for the past year reached $597 million, but only $220 million of that was from operations. The rest came from selling assets, such as its $1.4 billion international seed business.

Cargill, which has 82,000 employees in 59 countries, is the world's largest privately owned company. About 600 Cargill employees, and two members of its board of directors, are University of Minnesota alumni.

Through partnerships and grants, Cargill contributes about $17 million each year to civic and charitable organizations.

While other businesses have contributed money to the university, none has been in cash or as large as Cargill's contribution, according to Martha Douglas, spokeswoman for the university foundation. In 1985, IBM gave the university a $7.5 million supercomputer. In 1989, 3M contributed $4 million in educational training equipment. In 1987, Honeywell endowed academic positions, or chairs, with $2.5 million.

It's the third time in the past year the university has received a gift of $10 million. The first came from former Gophers football player Richard "Pinky" McNamara, and the second was bequeathed by the late entrepreneur Curt Carlson.

If the Legislature agrees to fund the institute, the university will build a 64,000-square-foot facility that will contain laboratories, related research space and offices. Ultimately the building would house 22 senior faculty members and 175 supporting researchers. Funding for staffing is included in the university's $157 million genetics plan. If everything falls into place, university officials said the institute could be up and running in two years.

Other institutions, such as Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and the University of California at Berkley and Davis, are doing similar work. Minnesota's efforts would be unusual, however, because it will cross departments, according to Charles Muscoplat, who will become dean of the College of Agricultural, Food, and Environmental Sciences on Sept. 21.

"This will involve faculty from many campuses and colleges, including the medical school, agriculture, food and environmental sciences," Muscoplat said. "There aren't that many universities that have big medical schools and big agriculture schools."