New U-M Tech Transfer Director Maps Plan for Entrepreneurial Outreach

Last spring, Ken Nisbet, the longtime director of the University of Michigan’s technology transfer office, announced his retirement. After a nationwide search, Kelly Sexton was hired as Nisbet’s successor earlier this year. We called Sexton to hear more about her background as well as her plans for commercializing innovations born at U-M.

Sexton is a Georgia native who attended the University of Georgia as an undergrad, and the University of California-San Diego as a graduate student. It was at UGA that she had her first experience in a research lab, which caused her to fall in love with science, she says. In grad school, she studied the cellular mechanisms underlying cancer.

“The lab bench looked out over Torrey Pines [golf course],” she recalls. “I reluctantly graduated and did my post-doctoral work at Stanford’s medical school.” At Stanford, her work centered around chemical processes to tease apart cell mechanisms in disease states. As time went on, she found herself less than excited at the prospect of working in academia.

“So I put my head down and researched what you can do with science PhDs,” she explains, “and that’s how I learned about university tech transfer.”

The lab she had been working at on campus was beginning to submit its inventions to Stanford’s tech transfer office, and watching that process up close further piqued her interest. “It merged science with business, and patent and contract law,” she says. “It was really exciting.”

She convinced Stanford that it needed a new intern in the tech transfer office and never looked back. From there, she moved on to a position at North Carolina State University, where she worked before landing the new gig at U-M.

“While I was at Stanford, I told my husband, ‘Let’s look for a place with a lower cost of living,’ so we ended up moving to Raleigh,” Sexton says.“I spent 11 years at NC State tech transfer, starting with an entry level position to running the whole operation starting in 2013.”

Sexton is proud of her accomplishments while at NCSU. “We were able to pivot and work on bringing the entrepreneurial and business communities to connect with enterprise,” she says. “One thing I’m most proud of is helping to create an alumni investor network, connecting angel investors to promising startups coming from tech transfer or run by students, alumni, or parents of students. We had a big umbrella for what it meant to be an NC State student.”

NCSU’s investor network launched in 2016 and has so far invested $3 million in university companies, she adds. “The money is nice, but engagement is really the reason we’re involved. Once we got alumni connected with university startups, they were blown away by how active campus entrepreneurs were. Ecosystem connectivity is really interesting to me.”

As for how she came to land at U-M, Sexton says the university asked her to apply, so she came for a visit. She was impressed by what she saw in Ann Arbor and the way community stakeholders, such as entrepreneurs and investors, came out to talk to her about the job.

“I’ve always been incredibly impressed with U-M—not only the office of tech transfer, which is very well respected—but also the strength of the university.” She points out that with $1.4 billion spent last year, it’s the largest public research university in the country, with a “wonderful commitment” to demonstrating the continued value of research universities.

Sexton feels that the public generally takes for granted the way federally funded research impacts their lives. She mentions Google, GPS navigation systems, and lithium-ion batteries as three products made possible by federal research dollars. “There’s a role for tech transfer to play in showing concrete examples of how research turns into jobs and economic growth,” she says.

Sexton plans to spend the first months of 2018 learning more about U-M’s campus and the tech transfer office as well as the local innovation ecosystem. She’d like to focus in part on customer service—customers being university entrepreneurs as well as outside investors licensing university technologies—- and transforming people who have worked with U-M tech transfer into ambassadors for the program. The office also plans to host regular community gatherings that are light on presentations and heavy on networking.

“Innovation doesn’t stop once you’re outside of Silicon Valley,” she points out. “U-M commands a lot of attention and respect from investors because of the quality of its faculty and inventions. We’re doubling down on connecting the campus entrepreneurial ecosystem to the community ecosystem.”

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