New Battery Cluster Caps Busy Year for U-M Research and Technology

Reserch and tech activities out of the University of Michigan have been on a roll lately. In late November, U-M announced the National Science Foundation had ranked it first in the nation in terms of research spending by a public university—$1.3 billion total during the 2011 fiscal year.

The Office of Technology Transfer also published its year-end report last month, detailing its 2012 successes. There were a record number of inventions submitted to the office in 2012, 123 technology license agreements, and 11 startups created: AlertWatch, Spider9, Baker-Calling, EA Associates, e-Sens, Diapin Therapeutics, Emergent Micro Systems, Lecture Tools, Possibilities for Change, Pryor Medical, and Reveal Design Automation.

Since 2002, the university’s tech transfer office has reported more than 3,000 inventions, launched 98 startups, generated more than $1 billion in private venture funding, and created 1,000 jobs, according to the report.

“A lot has changed since 2002; the whole climate has really improved,” says Ken Nisbet, executive director of U-M Tech Transfer. “There’s more of a culture of entrepreneurship, and the university itself has really stepped up support. Tech transfer is much more robust than it was in 2002.”

Nisbet also gives a lot of credit to the office’s national advisory board, which is made up of industry leaders, investors, government officials (Michigan Governor Rick Snyder is a past member), and innovators. “It’s a tremendous asset for our program,” Nisbet notes.

The next big opportunity on the horizon stems from last week’s announcement that U-M will be part of a battery research hub in partnership with Argonne National Laboratory. The U.S. Department of Energy established the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR) with an award of up to $120 million over five years, of which U-M’s portion is $7 million. Argonne will lead the effort along with five universities, four national labs, and four private firms. U-M is the only university from Michigan involved.

Mark Bateau, director of the Michigan Energy Institute, which will oversee the project, says the battery hub will concentrate on technological advances in energy storage and new battery materials, from research to proof of concept. He says they will be looking to tackle big energy problems, “like a Manhattan Project or Apollo Program.”

It’s not certain how the marketing of the intellectual property generated by the battery hub will work, but Bateau says the university will hold the patents for the technology it creates. The JCESR’s goal, which Bateau admits is aggressive, is to have five times the energy storage capacity at one-fifth the cost in five years.

It’s no surprise to Stephen Forrest, U-M’s vice president for research, that the university was chosen to participate in the JCESR. “That’s one of our sweet spots,” he says. “We seem to have a deep bench in solving system-level problems. The battery hub is a really big win for us.”

Forrest says the university founded the Energy Institute about five years ago and purposefully added a significant number of faculty in battery research. “We recognized the opportunities there,” he adds. “We added seven new faculty members, so by the time this came along, I think we were about the first to be approached. It’s a good example of committing to [an opportunity] before you know the specific plan.”

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