Front Door Program Helps Startups Access WSU’s Business Resources

Tucked inside the building that houses TechTown Detroit is the office of Wayne State University’s Front Door for Business Engagement program, which connects local companies to WSU’s various resources—research assistance, access to cutting-edge or highly specialized equipment, student interns, and more.

Established in 2012, the Front Door program is supported by WSU, the New Economy Initiative, and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. It’s designed to be a public-facing entity that works to “create interactions between the local business community and the university,” said Dennis Atkinson, the Front Door’s director of corporate engagement. “We’re here in TechTown to be a resource for the small-business community.”

With roughly 30,000 students and thousands of faculty members, the Front Door helps connect the dots, he added.

On its website, the Front Door has a searchable database of cross-disciplinary research expertise across schools, colleges, and institutes at Wayne State; a searchable catalog of university technologies that are available for license; and a listing of university research and policy centers in a variety of disciplines.

Another big resource for local businesses, Atkinson said, is access to the university’s research tools. “We have labs with state-of-the-art equipment that are often paid for by federal grants, and they’re usually not being used 100 percent of the time,” he said. “So we will open them up to outside businesses—for example, a small company that wants to do genomic testing. Or a business will send its staff in to be trained on how to use the equipment.”

The Front Door offers different levels of engagement, which Atkinson describes as something like a concierge service. “We can also lend expertise,” he said, adding that the Front Door works with the University Research Corridor and the Michigan Corporate Relations Network (MCRN) to find those experts at the state’s other major research universities. “They can consult with faculty or we can help with sponsored research projects for companies at a certain point in their commercialization process.”

Atkinson said the MCRN maintains a portal online where anyone can search for a faculty expert by university, publication, patents, or specialty. (In addition to Wayne State, participants include the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Michigan Technological University, and Western Michigan University.) After the matchmaking occurs, Front Door staffers will follow up to see if the connection was a success.

The Front Door can also help connect startups to two matching programs administered by the MCRN: The Small Company Innovation Program, which provides matching funds of up to $40,000 to help cover the cost of a research project at any of the MCRN universities, and the Small Company Internship Award Program, which offers $3,500 in matching funds to help small businesses hire students in science or technology fields.

“Our long-term goals are to enhance the research enterprise at Wayne State, get faculty more research support through sponsorships, and help the teams here already at TechTown to grow,” Atkinson said. “We want to enhance the reputation of Wayne State and Detroit nationally.”

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