About a year ago, the University of Michigan made a decision to focus on “encouraging and motivating” faculty to submit high-value ideas about new technology or inventions that could one day lead to commercialization, according Ken Nisbet, who directs the university’s Office of Tech Transfer (OTT). The university felt it had a lot of untapped talent, which turned out to be true, he says.
“Across the board, we saw a record number of new ideas,” Nisbet says. In the fiscal year ending June 30, 2013, the university logged its highest-ever number of inventions—421—with the biggest percentage coming from the College of Engineering.
The university’s medical school also had a banner year, with a record number of inventions reported (133) and patents issued (41). According to OTT data, in the past fiscal year, more than three-quarters of U-M’s revenues from past patents and licensing agreements came from technologies that began in the medical school.
To further the med school’s efforts, U-M has appointed Kevin Ward, an emergency room physician and serial inventor, to be its new executive director of medical innovation. Ward says he’s excited to be filling this role for an esteemed research university, and he’s also happy to be working in a more entrepreneurial realm again. “It’s addictive,” he says of his days working on inventions. “You realize the world is more complex than a lab or a patient’s bed side.”
Ward explains that he’ll work to feed the university’s tech transfer pipeline with ideas in four targeted areas: health IT, medical devices, therapeutics, and diagnostics. “I want to help build robust portfolios in all those areas, and then partner with entrepreneurs locally and nationally to translate ideas into products,” he says.
Nisbet and his crew at the OTT are then responsible for the tech transfer process. The group often utilizes its Venture Accelerator to take university inventions to market—frequently under the guidance of alumni and other prominent members of the community who act as CEOs, even if on a temporary basis—and shepherd the spinout companies to viability.
Last week, the OTT held its annual event celebrating university inventions and inventors. Nisbet invited a handful of inventors, some with early-stage startups, to set up booths at the event.
“The inventors love it,” he adds. “Some of them have worked for 10 years on their ideas. And maybe they’ll take a baby step by talking to some of the attendees, who are people that might one day use their inventions. Attendees also see the role of a research university in economic development and quality of life.”