Happy Trails, Ken: Nisbet Retires from Running U-M Tech Transfer

Tuesday marked the last day on the job for Detroit/Ann Arbor Xconomist Ken Nisbet, the University of Michigan’s longtime director of technology transfer—but don’t expect to see him enjoying post-career leisure activities anytime soon.

“I’m not going to go fishing five days a week or anything,” Nisbet says with a laugh. “I’m staying in Ann Arbor, and I’m already committed to organizations like Ann Arbor SPARK, where I sit on the board. The options I’m exploring are still related to entrepreneurs and innovation.”

Nisbet will stay on part time at U-M tech transfer to help with a nationwide search for his replacement, he says, and he’s considering jobs that will allow him the flexibility to enjoy more time with his family.

He first came on board at U-M tech transfer in 1997, and he has overseen the university’s program to commercialize the innovations of faculty and students since 2001. U-M devotes a significant chunk of its resources to the kind of research that can be turned into prototypes or startups with an assist from Nisbet’s staff. In the past decade, Michigan’s state government has also cultivated tech startups and the venture capital funds that push them to market, which has dovetailed nicely with Nisbet’s efforts. Notable exits during his tenure include Johnson & Johnson’s acquisition of Health Media in 2008, the $300 million sale of HandyLab to B&D in 2009, and Arbor Networks’ purchase by Tektronix in 2010.

“The university highly values the function of technology transfer,” he explains. “It’s important for our inventors, and it’s important for the university and Southeast Michigan’s economy. When you create startups, it’s good for people in the region because they provide jobs and reinforce the university’s mission of education and service.”

U-M is consistently among the top-ranked public universities when it comes to technology transfer, and Nisbet points to the university’s unwavering support of his department as one reason for its success.

“The university has funded us well, so we’re able to leverage relationships with other groups at U-M in the innovation pipeline, as well as external partners,” he says. “We have great people in the office who have worked hard and have been very creative. All of these things have greatly enhanced how we do what we do.”

Nisbet sees a continuing opportunity in software development for U-M with its strengths in engineering and computer science, particularly in the areas of healthcare and transportation/mobility. Some of his favorite moments on the job have been when a technology that initially didn’t seem very exciting suddenly takes off.

“That’s the nature of the work we do because we’re dealing with such early stage technologies, and the marketplace is often still evolving,” he says. “Sometimes you get surprised, or something looks incredible but doesn’t pan out.”

Nisbet’s advice for the next director of U-M’s tech transfer office is to embrace all the university has to offer: immense resources and a “terrific” team.

“You’re inheriting good people, so just enjoy the ride,” he adds. “I’m excited to see what new blood will do. Change is often good.”

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