$25M Gift from Urban Science Founder to Spur Entrepreneurship at WSU

Earlier this month, Wayne State University’s College of Engineering announced a $25 million gift to boost the entrepreneurial efforts of faculty and students in order to help drive Detroit’s revitalization. The gift to the university was made by alum Jim Anderson, founder of Urban Science, and his wife, Patricia.

The investment will create the James and Patricia Anderson Engineering Ventures Institute, which will offer coaching and resources to faculty and students interested in launching startups. The institute will push faculty to commercialize inventions, help secure patents, and teach best practices in “research innovation, commercialization, and technology transfer,” says Farshad Fotouhi, dean of the College of Engineering.

During the past five years, engineering faculty have filed 160 patent applications, signed 12 licensing deals, and created four startup companies.

“A gift of this size transforms the research and development we’re doing to innovation and entrepreneurship,” Fotouhi says. “Hopefully, it will help with culture change. Innovation doesn’t mean publishing something, but prototyping and, eventually, startups or licensing deals. Hopefully, we’ll see more and more faculty and students bringing their ideas to the forefront for commercialization.”

Fotouhi says Anderson approached the university about increasing innovation, entrepreneurship, and taking technology developed at WSU to market. Anderson began his career in 1967 as an instructor at Wayne State. While attending the university, he pioneered computer mapping techniques to display data. He later applied those mapping models to wide swaths of demographic data as part of WSU’s Center for Urban Studies.

Anderson went on to create a software program that allowed Cadillac to track luxury car buyers electronically, laying the foundation for using scientific methods to plan dealership networks and improve performance. Today, Urban Science is a global automotive consulting firm headquartered in Detroit with more than 850 employees in 19 offices around the world.

Though Fotouhi says the university has strong resources, there are gaps “here and there” when it comes to spurring entrepreneurship and student- or faculty-led startups. University officials have been talking to tech transfer offices at universities across the nation in an attempt to find out what works and what doesn’t.

“We’re certainly in touch with the University of Michigan extensively,” Fotouhi says. “We haven’t worked out a lot of the details of how we’ll run the institute, but, roughly, we’ll provide funding for College of Engineering faculty or students for prototyping needs, training, and more. We will leverage the fund to see where the holes are in university resources.”

Fotouhi says WSU is also partnering with U-M to bring to Wayne State the iCorps program, which helps train faculty to think like entrepreneurs. “The ultimate goal is to help revitalize Detroit through the College of Engineering,” he adds.

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