U-M Reports 2018 Rise in Inventions, Licensing, and Startups

Every fall, the University of Michigan formally celebrates the inventions and companies spun out of the school’s research and development efforts. This year, there was a lot to celebrate: according to U-M, a record number of 21 startups were launched during the 2018 fiscal year ending June 30, nearly doubling the previous year’s number. U-M researchers also reported a rise in new inventions, with 484 for the fiscal year, up from last year’s 444.

Kelly Sexton, who leads U-M’s tech transfer office and previously worked at Stanford and North Carolina State University, came on board at the beginning of 2018. She says much of her work this year has involved outreach—around campus and within the community at large—as well as tweaking the office culture.

“The university has made huge investments in programs like I-Corps, which are incredibly important at the very early stages [of startup development],” she says. “I see the number of inventions as kind of a health assessment of our relationship with investors. They’re seeing the university being good stewards of ideas and helping take them to market.”

One hundred and sixty-nine U.S. patents were issued to the university in fiscal year 2018, U-M’s technology transfer office reported, which is down slightly from 172 issued during the previous fiscal year. During the same time period, U-M tech transfer also inked a record 218 licensing agreements with companies that want to commercialize the discoveries of university researchers, up from 173 in 2017.

“We’re working hard to maintain a good connection to companies where U-M has research strengths,” Sexton says. “We’re streamlining our approach to negotiation and doubling down on interacting with the entrepreneurial community. We want to create a culture that is entrepreneur-friendly.”

To that end, Sexton has started a new tradition in the tech transfer office: “At the end of executing a licensing agreement with a U-M startup, we invite the founder or inventor back to the office to ring the startup bell,” she explains. “It helps us keep in mind that it’s not just about a signature on the page—it’s a relationship we’re trying to build. We want entrepreneurs to become a source for referrals and say they had a great time working with us.”

After they ring U-M’s bell of celebration, founders are also asked to tell the folks gathered in the room how they want to impact people and change the world with their startup. “It helps connect the whole team to the mission,” Sexton continues. “We’re the amplifiers of research done here, taking it from idea to reality.”

Sexton says U-M tech transfer is seeing “a lot of activity in discrete clusters” across campus and a spike in software startups. The office is refining its approach to taking software companies to market by piloting equity-only deals.

“It’s getting out through word of mouth that it’s much easier to launch software startups at U-M,” she adds. “Tech transfer grew up around licensing therapeutics, which is complicated, but software is a very different world. We needed to adapt our practices to meet market realities.”

Much of the tech transfer office’s work for the next fiscal year will involve internal changes, such as revising its strategic plan and updating its “vision, mission, and values. We’re hoping to have that done by next spring,” she says.

Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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