Wayne State Tech Transfer: New Leadership, New Programs, New Stability

In late May, the Wayne State University (WSU) announced Joan Dunbar would lead its technology commercialization efforts. She had already been serving in the position on an interim basis since the spring of 2012, when Harl Tolbert left the job after only a few months.

Dunbar, the founding director of biotechnology development and biomedical innovation in Wayne State’s School of Medicine, beat out several national candidates. Her official appointment is seen by officials in other southeast Michigan university tech transfer programs as an infusion of much-needed stability to Wayne State’s tech transfer office.

In just a year on the job, Dunbar nearly doubled faculty invention disclosures, assisted in the launch of nine startups, initiated a mentors-in-residence program, created the Innovation Fellows Program, began the Technology Development Incubator, and strengthened partnerships with WSU’s TechTown accelerator.

“We have to try harder, and that’s why we have to find our niche and do what works for us,” Dunbar says, acknowledging that past turnover has often stalled the department’s efforts. “We have to use the resources we have.”

Last month, the New Economy Initiative (NEI) also announced it was renewing its support for WSU’s technology commercialization office to the tune of more than $820,000. Dunbar says the funding will go toward two main activities: beefing up the Technology Development Incubator and the Innovation Fellows Program. “What NEI has been able to do has been incredible,” Dunbar says. “The money has allowed us to recruit mentors, and that’s been huge.”

Dunbar calls the Technology Development Incubator a proof of concept center, though it exists virtually rather than in brick-and-mortar form. The university spends up to $25,000 to determine whether a new technology deserves to be moved to the marketplace. As part of the evaluation process, industry experts are called upon to vet the technology.

“We were very emphatic that we didn’t want academics reviewing the technology,” Dunbar explains. “We have faculty meet with industry reviewers, and even if the industry reviewer passes on the technology, that feedback is a tremendous advantage.”

Dunbar feels that WSU faculty members have responded well to having their technology validated by industry, and that a more entrepreneurial culture has begun to take hold among established university professors.

When it comes to the younger ranks, the Innovation Fellows Program focuses on cultivating the next generation of science and technology entrepreneurs from its ranks of graduate and post-doctoral students in WSU’s medical school and colleges of engineering, liberal arts and sciences, and pharmacy and health sciences. “We have the students work with an industry mentor on their own research project or one of our portfolio companies,” Dunbar says.

Dunbar notes that the university’s technology commercialization efforts as a whole are undergoing a reinvention. Although WSU may not have the funding of a major research university, it does have a flourishing med school and a significant amount of engineering talent. “We don’t try to compete [with larger universities]—we have to do what’s best for Wayne State and what works for Wayne State,” she adds.

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