Former Genzyme Exec Talks About His New Role as U-M Innovation Evangelist

Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor — 

Richard Douglas has long-standing ties to the University of Michigan. He went there for his undergrad degree in honors chemistry before getting his PhD at UC Berkeley and a job with the Boston-based life sciences company Genzyme, where he eventually rose to the position of senior vice president of corporate development.

When Genzyme was purchased two years ago by Sanofi, Douglas says he decided to move on to the next “group of adventures,” which included a new gig as the first innovation evangelist for U-M’s Office of Technology Transfer.

It’s not a full-time endeavor. Douglas flies to Michigan from Boston once a month. During the three days that he’s in Ann Arbor, he joins the tech transfer staff and meets with researchers and faculty to encourage and guide their work. The ultimate goal, of course, is to bring that work to market.

Ken Nisbet, who leads the U-M Office of Tech Transfer, says Douglas also helps his office analyze the technical and commercial viability of the university’s new inventions, primarily in the life sciences sector. “He has direct expertise with many of our inventions, and he has a great network for us to tap into in the marketplace,” Nisbet notes.

“One of the nice parts about the role is that I’m not coming into a situation where something is broken and needs to be fixed,” Douglas says. “University of Michigan has a wealth of revenue to support research and, as a result, there’s a treasure trove of innovation that really warrants additional capital.”

The idea of having an innovation evangelist is a new one, and Douglas says the timing is perfect, as he senses a genuine excitement around U-M for entrepreneurship and how it gets translated from academia to the real world. “There’s way more emphasis than there was five or ten years ago,” Douglas says. “There’s been a cultural tipping point—it’s something everyone wants to be participating in.”

In his role at Genzyme, Douglas says he worked with the best of the best, and he believes the quality of innovations coming out of U-M is comparable with the best research universities anywhere, particularly what’s coming out of the university’s medical school. What’s missing is a critical mass of experienced managers who are capable of moving an invention to market.

“We need to focus on training more business managers over the next few years,” he says. “I think you’ll see business schools respond to that.”

Douglas says he’s enjoying his new role and is excited to see what kind of new discoveries are coming out of U-M. “The time is right for the university to be taking this next step to up its game,” Douglas adds. “The university will start a capital campaign soon, and I think that campaign will have more of an emphasis on this kind of activity than on bricks and mortar.”