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

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word. We feel heightened responsibility to do things that will positively impact the regional and the state economy. But I don’t think it’s pressure, per se; we’ve always felt that obligation and responsibility in a positive sense.

X: How does the University of Michigan stack up with other state universities in terms of volume of inventions and economic impact on your home state?

KN: Very well. We’ve always had one of the highest research volumes of a public university, definitely in the top 10. We haven’t always in the past translated that into tech transfer success, but within the last five or six years in particular, we are now well within the top 10 and maybe in the top five. And we measure that mainly by the number of agreements we have, which are technologies being put to use with our business partners and the number of startups we launch ever year. We’ve had a large number of successful startups that have attracted follow-on funding from investors. The economic impact of this is delayed because a lot of this takes time to fully germinate, but we’ve definitely seen both local and national impact with the technologies and the startups that we’ve created.

X: Your 2009 annual report says that your number of inventions reported at the university was the highest its been in recent years. Given the constraints on investment capital in recent years, has it been challenge to find venture capitalists to help commercialize technologies invented at the University?

KN: Oh, sure. It always is, and it was worse before, and the good news is we’ve seen a recovery. But probably about a year and a half ago, we saw a contraction from our business partners who were definitely impacted by the economy and therefore pulled back from the investments that were necessary to commercialize our technologies. That’s one thing to recognize, that we’re not really selling a finished product. We’re selling technology that requires further investment, we’re creating new companies that need further investment, and it’s often years before there are revenue-producing products and services. In a difficult economy, it’s hard for our venture and business partners to follow through and work with us. So we definitely, a year and a half ago, saw a dramatic contraction, as did most of our peer universities.

X: What’s been the university’s strategy for helping inventions find a home at startups or other companies?

KN: It’s a pretty complete array of services. Basically, we try to increase the value and decrease the risk of technologies to make it more likely that someone would make that follow-on investment. We try to provide really great customer service and professional services both to our inventors, because we want them to trust us with the technology that they’ve been working on, and also great service to these partners because we want them to feel like we’re one of their best vendors. When they’re looking for a technology, it’s well prepared, we know what they’re looking for, and we know their investment criteria, and the type of capital they have.

X: How does the university increase the value, and decrease the risk, of a technology?

KN: We do it by looking at the project and looking at … Next Page »

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