U-M Program Takes Transportation Innovations from Lab to Marketplace

University of Michigan researchers and faculty developing innovations that address transportation and mobility challenges have a path from the lab to the marketplace thanks to the Michigan Translational Research and Commercialization (MTRAC) Transportation program, which received $1 million to advance university startups in 2015, the program’s second year.

MTRAC is a statewide program to move university inventions to market and it’s primarily funded by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. (The Center for Entrepreneurship and Office of Technology Transfer run U-M’s MTRAC Transportation program.) Other MTRAC programs focus on life sciences (U-M), ag-bio (Michigan State University), and advanced materials (Michigan Tech).

Jay Ellis, MTRAC Transportation’s director, says he works with a board chock full of automotive executives and investors familiar with the transportation space to determine which research projects should get funding and a shot at developing into a startup. Often, the board will advise researchers to first try testing their technologies in a non-automotive vertical due to the long production cycles in the car industry, which can make it difficult for a startup to iterate.

“The ideas come from both faculty researchers and the board,” Ellis explains. “Sometimes, faculty has a hypothesis to test. Sometimes, the board says, ‘These are the problems we can’t solve.’ We made our board look like potential customers on purpose.” The university often puts MTRAC applicants through the I-Corps program to flesh out their ideas.

In 2014, the first year MTRAC Transportation was funded, it awarded roughly $470,000 to five research projects thought to have high commercial potential, including products that improved battery life, vehicle-to-vehicle communication, and hybrid efficiency.

A total of 12 projects have been funded since MTRAC Transportation was established, and Ellis says the ideas pitched in the second year were more mature than those in the first go-around. Each company gets up to $100,000 to cover a year of development. This year, Ellis says five projects were funded.

Two startups that have emerged from the program, Movellus Circuits and Elegus Technologies, have already racked up successes. Movellus Circuits, developing patent-pending cheaper and faster clock-generator technology for microprocessors, has gone on to win the Michigan Business Challenge and the Great Lakes Entrepreneurs Quest. Ellegus Technologies, maker of new battery separator material, just wrapped up a stint in Detroit’s Techstars Mobility incubator.

Some of the other awardees Ellis mentions are ParaBricks, a software company with cloud infrastructure products; Enertia Microsystems, which is working with DARPA to develop a system that allows robots to navigate without GPS; and Icephobic, a company working on a transparent, ice-repellent coating.

“We’ll try those markets first because they’re easier to validate than automotive or aviation,” Ellis says.

Ellis says that U-M is undergoing a cultural shift that prioritizes entrepreneurship. “The [College of Engineering’s] Center for Entrepreneurship has made huge strides in trying to figure out who the potential customers are and what they want,” he says. “[The Office of Technology Transfer] has also had a record year. People are now getting much more interested in forming startups and commercialization.”

MTRAC Transportation, a three-year, $2 million program, will begin accepting applications for its final cohort in January. Ellis hopes that once funding from the MEDC is exhausted, a different entity, person, or corporation will step up and contribute enough money to continue the program.

“The results have been great so far,” he adds. “We had double the number of applicants in year two. We’re commercializing cutting-edge technology right in our own backyard, and it would be a shame to stop the momentum.”

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