New ASTF head says agency will focus on fewer projects

Posted: Monday, December 09, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The new head of the Alaska Science and Technology Foundation says his focus will be on providing funds for fewer projects and getting more hands-on control of those enterprises it funds.

Hans Roeterink took over as executive director of the state agency aimed at diversifying the state's economy last month, replacing Jamie Kenworthy, who had headed the foundation for seven years.

The Anchorage-based agency was formed in 1988 and uses investment profits from a $100 million endowment to provide seed money to manufacturing and technology start-ups. It also funds research and development projects in partnership with industry and the state university, and provides grants to Alaska teachers to promote science and math programs.

With the stock market rout, the ASTF's endowment -- which is invested with the Alaska Permanent Fund's billions -- has seen its income plummet to a little more than $1 million during the state budget year that ended last June from an average of about $11 million annually during the market boom of the late 1990s.

That prompted the ASTF to halt all funding for new projects last year. In October, the foundation approved a plan to distribute up to $5.8 million during the current budget year. Most of this year's money has been earmarked for payments on existing projects.

Roeterink said the ASTF will be more selective and fund fewer new projects, even when the market improves and it has more money available.

''The goal is to have a better quality company coming out on the other end that has a better chance of survival in the next phase of their growth,'' Roeterink said.

The foundation lists several successes among the start-ups it has funded, including Integrated Power Technologies, a company that has developed protective relays for the electric utility industry, established a manufacturing facility and has begun making royalty payments back to ASTF.

It also provided money for the first vegetable processing plant of any scale in the state, Alaska Fresh Cut, which opened on King Street in South Anchorage in 1999 after receiving a $470,000 grant from the ASTF.

Still, there have been some failures. But that's not necessarily because of a poor business plan or a bad idea, according to Roeterink.

''Businesses typically fail because they don't have the experience, not because they don't have a good idea,'' he said.

Roeterink, who was selected by the ASTF's board from a pool of more than 50 candidates, brings with him to his new job more than 15 years of experience in the telecommunications and information technology industry.

He joined the foundation from T-Systems, a New York-based subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom, where he was chief technical officer and vice president of network operations. Prior to that, Roeterink spent 14 years at a consulting firm called Origin.

Of the $5.8 million the ASTF has to spend this year, about $1.4 million is available to fund new projects.

Roeterink sees a lot of potential in ideas that would use telecom and information technology to add value to Alaska's existing pillar industries like oil, fishing and timber.

The ideal candidate for a grant is someone who is smart, has a good head for finance and a good idea.

''They also need a fair amount of cash,'' Roeterink said.

Roeterink also said he plans to further Kenworthy's ideas about using Alaska's brain power to create things people Outside want to buy.

''The mission is to broaden our economic base, and the only way to do that is increase our exports. That is our core mission and will not change,'' he said.

He also said he will make a lot of effort to attract venture capitalists to the state. At the top of the ASTF's agenda, however, is protecting its endowment, Roeterink said.

With the difficulty the state is facing balancing the budget, he's worried that the Legislature may move in on the foundation's money. Lawmakers already have shown their willingness to do so, giving $2.3 million of ASTF money to the state university system earlier this year.

''I'd like to see it raised to $200 million, but my top priority now is to make sure the $100 million stays where it is,'' Roeterink said.

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