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Updated 11:00 AM July 16, 2007




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Student-industry partnership sends local company into orbit

It is a match made in innovation heaven, backers say, when small companies that struggle with manpower and funding issues are matched with graduate students who hunger for practical application of their education and talents.

The Michigan Aerospace Corp., a leader in the development of light detection and ranging (Lidar) and related optical systems for atmospheric measurement, a U-M spinoff company, recently benefited from student research on a revolutionary weather forecasting satellite system. (Image courtesy MWinds)

MWinds, a collaborative project between U-M engineering and business students and Michigan Aerospace Corporation (MAC), has produced one such match. Students in Professor Thomas Zurbuchen’s unique multidisciplinary class recently completed a year’s worth of research on a revolutionary weather forecasting satellite system for MAC, a U-M spinoff company.

MAC, in Ann Arbor, is a leader in the development of light detection and ranging (Lidar) and related optical systems for atmospheric measurement. The firm was interested in the possibility of putting Lidar systems on spacecraft for altitude-dependent detection of winds to forecast severe weather, but needed help developing the research. That’s where Zurbuchen’s class came in.

The class worked as a system study group and addressed problems of interest to and defined by MAC with a specific application in mind.

The real world experience for his students is just one benefit of the program. Zurbuchen says, adding he is excited about the future benefits to Michigan’s economy when even more student-corporation partnerships are formed.

“What I find unique is the possibility of using the class experience to help an innovation startup company in Michigan,” he says. “The Michigan Aerospace Corporation estimated that the class did in one year what it would have taken them three years to research. What the students got was the best education they could get working with a real company and real deadlines in a real time atmosphere.

“With this experience under their belts, their value in the aerospace industry has increased exponentially.” Zurbuchen’s selection of MAC, which was formed in 1996 to commercialize the technologies of U-M’s Space Physics Research Lab, also was ideal. Working closely with MAC CEO Peter Tchoryk and his team, the students put in many hours researching, conducting market assessments and creating new technology to enhance hurricane forecasting.

Tchoryk, who holds a U-M master’s degree in engineering, was impressed with the results of the partnership. “The quality and volume of work produced by the students was exceptional. The end result on the technical side was a high-fidelity point design with all the solid engineering and trades that one would expect from an aerospace company,” he says.

“From the business side, the students created a business model that provided a comprehensive survey of potential applications and revenue projections for each,” Tchoryk says. He added that the MWinds project is active and underway at Michigan Aerospace with customers on both the civilian and defense side being pursued.

For more information on this and other collaborative research projects go to

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