In Michigan, technology spun out of the University of Michigan is firmly entrenched in the startup success stories that get the most press: HandyLab, Accuri Cytometers, and the like. What’s less publicized is the key role Wayne State University’s technology has played in major companies like Asterand and the California-based SciClone Pharmaceuticals.
Wayne State is particularly renowned for its contributions to chemical technology, and, earlier this month, the university hired Harl Tolbert—a former pharmaceutical executive with an extensive business development, licensing, and IP management background—as its associate vice president of technology commercialization tasked with building relationships with startups.
“Once upon a time, I wanted to be a researcher,” Tolbert says. “Then I became drawn more to the business part of science. I made my way out of the lab to a medical clinic in Illinois, and that whet my appetite for understanding how science, medicine, and business intersect.”
Tolbert comes to Wayne State after working in sales and business development at Abbott Laboratories and Pierce Chemical, both located in Illinois. When a job opened up in the technology transfer office at Tulane University, the Louisana native jumped at the chance to return to his home state and raise his children closer to family. Then, about a year later, Hurricane Katrina hit.
“We decided to leave New Orleans,” Tolbert says. “It was really painful, but everything was so uncertain. We didn’t know if we’d be able to rebuild our home or even re-occupy our neighborhood.”
He and his wife had a pact to relocate to the first city that offered both of them a job, and that ended up being Rochester, NY. Tolbert served as the associate director for biological sciences in the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Office of Technology Transfer before landing the job at Wayne State.
Though Tolbert was only slightly familiar with Detroit before accepting his position, he was very familiar with Wayne State, thanks to mentors throughout his career who had intimate ties to the university.
“Wayne State has a reputation for great achievements in chemistry,” he adds.
Tolbert says he plans to increase the school’s efforts to commercialize its technology by pitching both fresh technology and older technology to startups, particularly those in the realm of life science applications that involve human cells or tissue. He’s also seeking ways to develop technology despite the relative lack of funding that university research typically receives, such that the technology is “one or two steps” beyond the earliest stages.
“There’s a need for more bridge funding,” Tolbert says. “That’s true for all universities, and it’s true for Wayne State.”
One advantage Wayne State’s Office of Technology Transfer has is that it’s located in TechTown, the university’s startup incubator and a hub for local innovation. Tolbert imagines that his proximity to TechTown’s entrepreneurs will lead to “a lot of brainstorming in the hallways,” and the chance to not only interact, but keep tabs on companies that are interested in licensing Wayne State’s technology.
“We want to work with more startups in Detroit and the Southeast Michigan region,” Tolbert says. “Entrepreneurs tend to be a little more receptive to early-stage technology. We just have to be creative in how we engage them so that we can help them, and they can help us.”
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