Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Friday, April 23, 2010

URC participants outline growing relationships between universities, business

Michigan’s University Research Corridor presidents are so committed to working together to transform the state’s economy that they are improving external relationships at all levels and changing their cultures, URC Executive Director Jeff Mason told a state House panel in Lansing on Wednesday.

“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” Mason said, outlining the impact of the three research universities and how it magnifies when they work together, noting the most recent URC report found their combined impact added $14.5 billion to the state’s economy.

Mason, business leaders and representatives of U-M, Michigan State University and Wayne State University explained the changing university-business relationships to the House standing Committee on New Economy and Quality of Life.

Daryl Weinert, executive director of the U-M Business Engagement Center, recalled coming to work for his alma mater more than a decade ago when the term “corporate relations” mainly applied to development/fundraising. Today the Business Engagement Center has strong working relationships with at least 1,148 companies and on a daily basis connects business and the public with university resources.

Focusing on improving such external relationships better connects universities with the public they serve, he said. By putting the relationships first, business-supported research has grown rapidly, partnerships are up and “the philanthropy side of these relationships is stronger than ever.’’

“We’re really a Tier 1 supplier of talent to industry,” Weinert said of the three research universities.

Similar changes are under way at the other two URC universities with MSU opening MSU Technologies on the off-campus side of Grand River Avenue and Wayne State putting major resources into TechTown, which is pushing to become one of the best business incubators in the world.

Weinert said the three partners already work well together but that they are working to further formalize the network connecting the business engagement operations at all three universities. He added that he knew of only six universities nationwide with such extensive universitywide business engagement operations, and three of the six were the URC universities.

Mike Poterala, assistant vice president and executive director of MSU Technologies, said he thinks of their efforts as “building a bridge” between the universities and the rest of the world. He noted that research papers typically are hard for nonresearchers to understand so one of his office’s goals is “to translate research results into business language and to be an abundant source of business opportunities.”

TechTown Executive Director Randall Charlton said stories have appeared in The Economist, The New York Times and CNN about how URC partners are making steady progress on “the front line of an economic war.”

TechTown, he noted, is part of an aggressive economic initiative challenged with establishing 1,200 new companies. In the past 330 days, TechTown has attracted 2,580 attendees at business-focused events, 1,440 registered for classes and 713 have already graduated from programs. Today, TechTown is home to 201 companies and expanding into nearby space to accommodate growing demand.

The panel also heard from business owners who have benefited from university partnerships including Harry Rittenour, CEO of Plymouth-based Perceptron; Ron Averill, CEO of Red Cedar Technology; and James Eliason, an adjunct WSU professor and CEO of MitoStem.

Ritternour described the ways Perceptron got U-M to “help us find contacts” while Averill said some of his best employees “started as interns so we’re trying to keep the talent here in Michigan.” Eliason said he was “one of the 713 graduates” of TechTown’s entrepreneurial initiatives, saying his company is already working to develop business uses from recent university stem cell research.