ANN ARBOR, Mich.—To turn an invention into a marketable product that can benefit society, you need, above all else, the right people involved. That's the premise behind a new $2.4 million statewide program called the Tech Transfer Talent Network. It is led by the University of Michigan and funded through a grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.
The network includes seven universities and regions with strong research-based technology opportunities or clusters of talent, and in some cases, both. In addition to U-M, members are: Wayne State University, Michigan State University, Michigan Technological University, Western Michigan University, Grand Valley State University and Oakland University. Each university is also collaborating with its regional economic development organization to promote increased access to mentors and partnering businesses.
The primary goal of the Tech Transfer Talent Network is to increase the supply of seasoned entrepreneurs and innovators who can lend their expertise to university tech transfer offices. These connections will serve as important bridges to launch technology-based startups or license university inventions to established companies. The program will allow other state universities in the network to share and benefit from the tech transfer resources developed at U-M.
"Most people agree that the core problem holding back economic vitality is having available talent, especially in the Midwest. We aim to change that," said Ken Nisbet, executive director of U-M Tech Transfer. "You may get early stage internal development funding, but if you cannot find the talent to assess commercialization issues, formulate development plans and execute on these plans, you're not deploying that money well."
U-M, which had 101 licensing agreements and spun out 11 startups in 2011, consistently ranks in the top 10 U.S. universities in tech transfer performance. In the past decade, the Tech Transfer office has helped launch 92 startups from research that originated in faculty labs, and three-quarters of those are located in Michigan.
To enhance its capabilities, U-M has put in place several talent-related initiatives during the past few years. Through the network, U-M will help other universities implement some of these strategies, including:
- The Catalyst database, which identifies and tracks experienced entrepreneurs who are willing to serve as experts, mentors, consultants or even co-founders.
- Mentors-in-Residence, experienced entrepreneurs who work within Tech Transfer for 12- to 18-month rotations, helping to assess new opportunities and mentor new start-up ventures.
- Tech Transfer Fellows, a program that employs graduate students or other qualified personnel to help assess technology and analyze markets for tech transfer opportunities.
- A postdoctoral fellowship program to support graduate students and postdoctoral researchers to encourage them to continue within a newly licensed business or a new startup venture.
These pilot efforts at U-M have pushed tech transfer projects forward in big ways.
In the case of medical device firm and 2010 U-M startup HistoSonics, the Catalyst system engaged a Florida entrepreneur with specific experience in the company's field, therapeutic ultrasound technology. Along with a mentor-in-residence, the team worked with the company to raise more than $11 million in venture funding.
The 2011 U-M startup Life Magnetics took advantage of the mentor-in-residence program as well, going as far as hiring mentor Bill Wood after his term at Tech Transfer was finished. Wood served as interim CEO for the biotech firm and worked with its founder to raise $1 million in venture funding. Now, the company has retained the talents of a co-founder and a former CEO of HandyLab, a U-M startup that sold in 2009 for $275 million.
"Having more access to experienced entrepreneurs and advisers has proven to be an effective strategy for U-M Tech Transfer," Nisbet said. "Although the results will take years to fully develop, we are confident that the Talent Network will give a boost to our collective efforts among our sister universities to transfer technology and create new startups. This demonstrates another way that our universities are playing a key role in revitalizing our regions and transforming the Michigan economy."