Fresh Off Another Banner Year, U-M Tech Transfer Looks Ahead to 2017

In 2016, the University of Michigan’s Office of Technology Transfer, which is tasked with bringing the school’s inventions and startups to market, had another banner year: $23 million in licensing revenues and a record 173 licensing agreements. With fresh leadership at U-M’s Venture Center; programs stoking innovation, such as Train the Trainers; and an increasing number of university-born startups choosing to grow in Michigan, 2017 is already off to a busy start.

Ken Nisbet, U-M’s associate vice president for research-technology transfer, points out that of the startups in the Venture Center’s 2016 class, all but one were companies headquartered in Michigan. In 2016, university researchers reported 428 new inventions, up from last year’s 422. U-M Tech Transfer was also awarded 135 U.S. patents last year.

Nisbet also detailed some of the new programs and initiatives undertaken by the state and university to foster commercialization of homegrown technologies.

In September, the $3.5 million Exercise and Sport Science Initiative (ESSI) research program was launched. Combining the resources of the medical school and the College of Engineering, ESSI is designed to find and develop technologies that enhance physical activity and athletic performance. The ESSI taps expertise from across campus in areas like kinesiology, bioengineering, psychology, and data science for projects with government and industry; the initial areas of focus will be sports technologies, data analytics, and performance optimization. One current R&D ESSI project involves a material that could be used in football helmets to protect against concussions.

In October, a new allocation of $200,000 went toward Train the Trainers, a two-year-old effort funded by the state and managed by U-M’s Center for Entrepreneurship that aims to further establish Michigan as a welcoming place for tech startups. Train the Trainers works in collaboration with the statewide Michigan Translational Research and Commercialization program to coach entrepreneurs, researchers, and inventors and share best practices on how to turn entrepreneurial theories and research into viable startups.

Since launching in 2014, U-M has partnered with various universities, including Michigan State University, Grand Valley State University, and Lawrence Tech University, as part of Train the Trainers. Nisbet says the program builds on earlier, successful Talent Network and mentor-in-residence initiatives and was an opportunity for some of the state’s more seasoned entrepreneurial service providers to share their expertise with colleagues across Michigan.

“It helps assess new technologies, open networks, and introduce entrepreneurs to new funding sources, and it helps improve how technology transfer offices work,” Nisbet adds.

In November, Michael Psarouthakis was promoted to run the university’s Venture Center, the startup accelerator housed in the Office of Technology Transfer. Previously the center’s assistant director, Psarouthakis got the gig after outgoing director Jack Miner left to take over as managing director at Cleveland Clinic Ventures.

Psarouthakis feels the entire endeavor of technology transfer is evolving.

“It’s not just the startups we work with, it’s the whole approach to the way we do business,” he says. “I think the Office of Technology Transfer, in general, is transitioning to a more entrepreneurial way of doing business, even in licensing and the Venture Center.”

One challenge Psarouthakis intends to explore is that of funding—especially in a region that can be as risk-averse as the Midwest. Getting that first $500,000 investment can be a struggle for startups in the state, he notes.

“There are creative ways to work with the ecosystem or to create our own funds,” he says, explaining that most university investment funds are meant, at least in part, to help teach students about the due diligence process and the mechanics of startup funding. “But there are also funds like the Monroe-Brown fund that aren’t focused on education, and that really opens up an opportunity to explore something like that. They’ve broken a path. Our mentors are all entrepreneurs or investors themselves, so we’re in a good spot to help bridge the funding gap.”

Psarouthakis says he hasn’t seen a rush of autonomous vehicle technology startups yet, but fully expects to see them soon as the university plays a lead role nationally in the development of those kinds of innovations.

“I think there’s a huge opportunity,” he adds. “We’re going full-steam-ahead and staying focused on quality startups coming out of the university.”

(To check out some of the U-M startups we’ve written about in the past, go here, here, here, or here.)

Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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