U-M’s TechStart Interns Help Guide University Startups to Market

By day, Mark Maynard is the marketing manager for the University of Michigan’s Office of Technology Transfer. After hours, he dedicates a big chunk of his time to overseeing the university’s TechStart internship program, which is just finishing its 13th year.

Each summer, TechStart takes a handful of U-M’s best and brightest graduate students from the business school, the medical school, and the colleges of law and engineering, and it puts them in multidisciplinary teams to work on promising startup projects coming out of the tech transfer office.

“I try to select projects that reflect the breadth of research at the university in different stages of maturity to give the students a sense of all that can go wrong and right,” Maynard explains. “It’s a nice way for them to see if they really want to start a company.”

At any given time, there are about 100 projects in the tech transfer pipeline, Maynard says, that could develop into startups. He puts each student on two different projects, which they work on full-time from May to August.

“We don’t have the manpower to provide TechStart interns to every single startup,” Maynard says. “But you can make significant progress working 40 hours a week for three months.”

According to Maynard, a lot of what TechStart interns do involves strategy. Industry players tend to be more generous with their time if they’re talking to a student, Maynard says. The students don’t go in with a set agenda, but they analyze the technology involved in the projects they’re working on and determine how best to move it forward over the course of 12 weeks. Sometimes they help write grant applications; sometimes, their input completely changes the course of the startup technology they’re working on.

Michael Vizachero is a med student who was assigned to work on a prosthetic interface technology that connects directly to nerves and sends wireless signals to a prosthetic device. Early in the summer, the team realized that a side benefit of the implantable technology is that it provides treatment for neuromas, the ball of scar tissue that forms after a nerve is severed. Now the team is focused on trying to understand this new market and its key competitors.

“The idea of addressing the neuroma market hadn’t come up before,” Vizachero says, adding that U-M’s technology is far more intuitive than any similar product currently on the market.

Vishalakshi Krishnan, another student in this summer’s TechStart class, has been working on a project involving anti-viral agents that might be efficacious against HIV, influenza, and ebola. Her work includes market research and what experiments are still needed before seeking investment.

“I came with no business experience—I only know the research side,” she says. “I took up the internship to see how a product of research gets to market. It makes me want to start my own company.”

And that, Maynard says, is one of the big goals of the TechStart program: He hopes it helps talented students find their way to entrepreneurship. “People coming to the university are more entrepreneurial than in the past, especially the students working in labs. Some people’s personalities—they’d rather see more deal flow than spend their whole career in research for one or two big discoveries. The best case scenario is that a student will go through the TechStart program, stay in Ann Arbor, and start a company.”

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