U-M’s Ken Nisbet on Bridging the Gap Between Innovation and Economic Recovery in Michigan


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the critical path towards commercialization, and try to identify risk areas that may be technical or commercial. And then we physically use what we call gap capital. Some of our tech transfer proceeds are reinvested in reducing the risk of technologies. We are one of only nine universities in the world to have a Coulter Foundation grant for biomedical projects. Those funds are called translational research funds. They are used post-research to answer some of the technical questions around a particular technology or application, and then we apply human talent. We have mentors, volunteers, and our own staff always looking at these areas and trying to identify the critical areas that need to be addressed to make it more likely that something would reach the marketplace.

X: Obviously, many people think of the U.S. auto industry when they think of Michigan. What is a cool invention that engineers at the university have developed for the auto industry?

KN: We do a lot of research with the auto companies, especially GM and Ford, on work process, on emissions, on batteries. There are a lot of connections with particular startups that have close relationships with the auto companies. One new invention that was invented here, and is going to be applied to not only autos but also elsewhere, is a new type of machining fluid that is based on vegetable oil as opposed to crude oil. It’s cheaper, faster, better; it has a bunch of advantages over the traditional type of machining fluid that is used in a number of industries, not just auto. So we’re actually forming a company around that and have, as one of the first target customers, one of the large autos. [Editor's note: As of yesterday, Nisbet had provided Xconomy the name of the new startup he described above.]

X: Roughly half of the inventions from the university in 2009 were medical technologies. Could you describe one those inventions that people might find interesting?

KN: There’s many. Probably one of the areas right now that is really hot in the marketplace are biomedical devices—engineering technologies that are applied to the medical field. Actually, I go back in time to one that is interesting because it was a combination of IT, health behaviors, and psychology. It was a company that ended up being HealthMedia. So HealthMedia was formed by a professor who had a joint appointment in public health and cancer research. He had this concept that the therapies for addressing basic drugs for things like smoking cessation and weight control were less effective because of the behavioral aspects around it, the motivation to change peoples’ lifestyles and other things that would impact health. So he formed this company and the technology associated with it. It involved not just the drug—it was the behavioral components, health-risk appraisals, support materials, delivery methods of communications, and a number of things that the company put together based on the work here at the university. That’s an interesting example because it’s not your classic drug or research tool or device.

X: What’s the status of HealthMedia?

KN: It’s been very successful. Johnson & Johnson purchased them about a year and a half ago. This is a nice story because HealthMedia is a local company that ended up doing very well. It took a long time. They had about 150 people. Johnson & Johnson was working with them and liked the product and the company so much that they purchased it and continue to invest in Ann Arbor. So it’s staying here with additional investment, and we’re expecting to see additional employment because of Johnson & Johnson’s presence here. Lastly, it’s a great way to get a large, well-known company like Johnson & Johnson into Michigan by having them work with one of our startups and establish a beachhead for further business expansion. [Editor's note: New Brunswick, NJ-based Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) acquired HealthMedia, a provider Web-based health interventions, for an undisclosed sum in October 2008.]

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