Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Thursday, April 29, 2010

URC presidents testify before House subcommittee about group’s value

Jason Bornhorst left Ohio to attend U-M, where in two years he’s helped start three companies.

The 23-year-old graduate has no plans to leave Michigan because his company, Mobiata, has gone from one employee to seven in the course of months. This is while U-M’s TechArb, the student business incubator where he’s been based, adds 14 new companies this summer.

Darren Leppek left a Ford Motor Co. assembly line to earn a Wayne State University MBA and is part of a company in WSU’s TechTown that is reducing the cost of biodiesel fuel by $1 a gallon.

John Frost based his chemical company off MSU research and has gone from 25 to 200 employees, fighting off investors who insisted they move some or all of the company to Minneapolis, noting “this company only exists because of MSU” and works best when it’s work force is near MSU and its resources.

The House Higher Ed Appropriations Subcommittee in Lansing heard those and other University Research Corridor success stories while listening to testimony Wednesday on state support for URC partners U-M, Michigan State University and Wayne State University.

“The URC is like that triple helix (partnerships of universities, business and government),” said Rep. Lee Gonzalez, D-Flint. “Without that helix, things happen by chance, but the University Research Corridor becomes central to fueling growth. That’s how far you’ve come since you first organized three years ago.”

U-M President Mary Sue Coleman said she and her URC counterparts “now automatically contact each other” about opportunities. “It’s a good start but it isn’t even close to where we want to be in 10 years,” she said.

MSU President Lou Anna Simon, noting a new survey found 59 percent of recent graduates found work in the state soon after graduation compared with 46 percent a year earlier, said attitudes have changed to focus on “assets we have to share” rather than deficits that need to be covered. WSU President Jay Noren said the URC wants to get its message beyond state borders so it is as well as known as North Carolina’s Research Triangle.

URC Executive Director Jeff Mason added, “Through the sheer size of the research institutions we are able to reposition the image of Michigan in the eyes of not only our own citizens but people around the globe. … Together the three universities that make up the URC produced an average of 20 new companies a year, more than one new company a month for the past five years.”

Committee members said they would vote within the next several weeks on a new higher ed budget. As the state faces a $1.7 billion deficit, Gov. Jennifer Granholm has proposed maintaining higher ed support at current levels while the state Senate recently approved a budget plan that would cut higher ed support by 3 percent.

The House committee’s chair, Rep. Joan Bauer, D-Lansing, said she especially is concerned that Michigan’s support for higher ed has dropped rapidly on a per capita basis from 24th in the nation a decade ago to 42nd today. Other lawmakers also asked how state officials could alter policies to help the universities continue to expand opportunities within the state.

Coleman and Noren cited recent legislative attempts to increase state regulations related to stem cell search as an example of government attempting to impose regulations that send signals that could hamper efforts to grow new industries.