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Updated 11:30 AM December 6, 2004
 

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Business students teach professors
about research commercialization

They say the best learning comes from teaching and doing, so a new course being offered to business students should be very educational indeed.

Undergraduate and graduate students at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business have spent the semester consulting with scientists at U-M and Michigan State University to help them develop their research ideas into something that might become a business.

The faculty receive some free coaching, and the students get a strong taste for setting off into uncharted territory, says David Brophy, associate professor of finance and director of the Ross School's Center for Venture Capital and Private Equity, who developed the course. "They are experiencing life in the unstructured world of research commercialization."

Or to put it more bluntly: "Staring into the abyss is really useful for some people," says MBA student Andrew McColm, who has been working with Dr. David Humes in the Medical School to develop an implantable device filled with living cells to treat Type 1 diabetes.

"I learned a lot more from this than reading a book," says evening MBA student Ryan Gunderson, who is on the same team as McColm. "It's like a mini-internship."

The innovative class puts the business students into teams with mentors—area businesspeople who have some entrepreneurial experience. Together, these teams work with researchers to develop commercial ideas, under the immediate supervision of Erick Trombley, the class "drill sergeant."

Projects the students have worked on include a new way of producing hydrogen on-site in small quantities, growing bacteria that produce an important chemical feedstock, an improved type of welding for medical devices and aerospace, and a nanotechnology delivery system for drugs.

What faculty learn is that business works on a different time scale than the sometimes-glacial academic world.

"These students literally pushed me, dragged me, to define ways this could be done now, rather than within the five-year goal I had set," says Dr. Josef Miller of the Kresge Hearing Research Institute, whose idea is a medication that could prevent hearing loss from loud noise.

Miller is no stranger to commercialization, having been the lead inventor at the University of Washington on the idea that became the Sonicare toothbrush. But the coaching still is very useful to him as he pursues his latest ideas.

"Every time you go through this process, it's like a birth, and no two are quite alike," Miller says.

What the students will produce at the end of the class on Dec. 7 isn't a full-fledged business plan, but rather the start of a plan.

"Here's the pain; here's the pain medicine. Who wants it and what will they pay?" Brophy says.

That sort of hard-nosed business analysis is key to the commercialization of research, said James Richter of the Michigan Research Institute (MRI), a nonprofit research institute in Ann Arbor. He has been both a mentor of student teams and a co-developer of the course with Brophy. MRI obtained a U.S. Department of Labor grant to help fund the course at U-M.

"I've been in meetings with university presidents and the venture capital community, and the first thing the presidents always ask is, 'Why aren't you commercializing our technologies?'" Richter says. The usual answer, he says, is that the university has just a technology, not a business plan that will bring it to market.

Crossing that gap between the money people and the lab people has become the bottleneck of technology transfer, says Matthew Pickus, an Ann Arbor business consultant who has served as a mentor for the class.

The hope is that the time and talent of business students might "jump start that process," Richter says.

Richter and Brophy will measure the outcomes with the students, asking whether the experience of Finance 629 has changed their minds about entrepreneurship, or shown them the challenges and rewards of the entrepreneurial pursuit. Spawning a few licensing agreements or startup companies would be even better, of course.

Miller thinks his hearing loss drug might become a marketable business idea in a year or 18 months, thanks in no small part to the work the students have put into it.

"Now I understand how much work it really is," says first-year BBA student Tristan Peitz. "It's really not that easy to start a company."

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