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For Entrepreneurship Leaders at U-M, a Balance Between Teaching Innovation and Capitalizing On It

Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor — 

Timothy Faley, the managing director of the University of Michigan’s Samuel Zell and Robert H. Lurie Institute or Entrepreneurial Studies, has a unique way of measuring his job performance.

“It’s always turbulent at the wave front,” he says. “I know I’m doing my job when I feel the tension.”

And indeed, according to Faley, the tension between his center’s practical approach to education and the more theoretical method valued by many in academe is constant, but that hasn’t stopped Faley and others at U-M from promoting a culture of entrepreneurship on campus. In the last four or five years, U-M’s entrepreneurial ecosystem has exploded, thanks in large part to programs like Zell Lurie, and university officials committed to faculty and student innovation. But leaders in U-M’s startup community say there’s still more work to be done.

Faley says one of the main obstacles his center has come up against in fostering a culture of entrepreneurship is actually one of the strengths of U-M

“The schools and colleges are very strong and independent and on the one hand that’s what makes it a great institution,” he says. “That’s all fine and good but when you want to do entrepreneurship, and you want to do it cross-culturally, and you want to integrate all institutions and all colleges, it becomes a challenge.”

Faley says his center has already had significant success breaking down cross-college barriers. The institute, which is housed in the business school, works with U-M’s Center for Entrepreneurship in the College of Engineering, U-M’s Medical Innovation Center, and other institutions to offer interdisciplinary courses focused on entrepreneurship and partnering to bring new technologies to commercialization and help the startup community grow.

Faley say his institute’s approach is to have students work on creating real companies with the ultimate goal of learning the process of taking an idea to commercialization. “We want to arm them with the skills to identify an opportunity and figure out how to frame that opportunity and how to create an actionable plan to attract the resources that you need,” he says.

Faley says it’s not realistic to expect a student to still be working with a company she launched as an undergraduate or MBA student 30 or 40 years down the line, which is why his goal is to graduate more students than companies. He added that many of his students don’t necessarily go on to develop their own companies after graduation, but the skills that they’ve learned help them to be innovators within larger companies.

“We want to teach them how to form many businesses as opposed to coaching them to the formation of one,” he says.

That said, Faley, believes that students learn better when working on real companies as opposed to theoretical business plans. “They learn so much more when its real and the intensity is so much great when its theirs,” he says. “We’ll use your idea as a platform for learning and if that idea ends up spinning out as a successful company that’s fabulous.”

Doug Neal, managing director for the Center of Entrepreneurship, an organization housed in U-M’s College of Engineering that teaches classes on entrepreneurship and helps students actualize their startup ideas, says his organization also prioritizes teaching students the techniques for creating a viable startup over actually spinning out companies.

“We focus much more on helping them navigate the experience,” he says. “If they have an idea they want to pursue we want to help them quickly figure out how to fail fast on that idea or launch it forward.”

He continued: “We want them to engage it as if they’re putting their own money into it because they’re putting their own time into it.”

Though leaders at both centers say their primary goal is educating entrepreneurs rather than creating new enterprises, Tom Kinnear, Eugene Applebaum professor of entrepreneurial studies and the executive director of Zell Lurie, says there’s been a push across campus in the past several years for students and faculty to develop actual technologies and companies.

“I think there’s an acceptance among the leadership at the university that this is something that’s really important for society, something we should really be doing to bring these potential innovations forward,” he says.

He added that U-M isn’t alone in its commitment to taking research innovations to the next level.

“There’s been a recognition among those who get the most money for research that most of them now are attempting to do this and the question is who is going to do it best,” he says.

James Geiger, the executive director of U-M’s Medical Innovation Center, says he wants that place to be Michigan.

“I put together the Medical Innovation Center because I really saw that we have so many amazing resources at Michigan and that we weren’t necessarily always connecting them as well as we could to do true innovation,” he says.

Geiger says the goal of his center is to address this disconnect between research discoveries and the means to capitalize on them through programs such as a fellowship that brings together MBAs, doctors, dentists, and post-doctorate engineers to learn from each other and develop the skills to create commercially viable medical technologies.

“I had seen at other places where this activity had more spontaneously happened or had been encouraged in other ways,” he says. “It isn’t a part of our culture a much as it is at other places.”

U-M’s President Mary Sue Coleman and the school’s Vice President for Medical Affairs Ora Pescovitz “understand the potential of innovation,” Geiger says, but more needs to be done—like rewarding faculty who come up with marketable intellectual property or viable companies—to really harness the school’s potential.

“We are this huge place of great discovery we just now need to figure out a way to leverage that,” he says.

Geiger added that the stakes are higher than simply U-M’s reputation as an innovative institution.

“A lot of people are looking at this as a solution to our economy and I think it could definitely help,” he says. “We want to be moving things off our campus to improve the world.”