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Updated 10:00 AM June 8, 2009

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Coleman touts university innovation at Mackinac

Growth through innovation was a central theme at one of the most well attended sessions of this year's Mackinac Policy Conference. Three of the four panelists with success stories had a U-M connection.

Showing how universities routinely are involved with innovation, President Mary Sue Coleman told the audience on May 28 that "partner or perish'' has been her mantra, adding "there's been a sea change'' in how U-M works with business, state and community partners.

Students and faculty are more entrepreneurial, she said, and the university is committed to helping business through its Business Engagement Center and the planned development of the Pfizer research campus. U-M also is making a regional commitment through statewide partnerships like the Michigan Initiative for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (MIIE) and the University Research Corridor (URC), she added.

MIIE involves all 15 public universities in the state, while the URC encompasses U-M, Michigan State University and Wayne State University. Both are committed to economic development, technology transfer and an increased level of entrepreneurism in Michigan.

"Hopefully, throughout higher education we can be more aggressive with these ideas,'' Coleman said. "Michigan can no longer afford an east-west divide or a county-by-county divide anymore."

William Parfet, chairman and chief executive officer of Mattawan-based MPI Research Inc., a 1972 U-M graduate and a member of the family that founded Kalamazoo's Upjohn Co. before its buyout, told the audience, "I know what it's like to be a victim of change."

The company he owns was battered when he bought it in 1995, as the entire pharmaceutical industry transformed the way it does business.

But today MPI has 1,600 workers, 60 percent with a bachelor's degree or higher and 45 percent from Michigan universities. MPI plans to add another 3,000 jobs in the next five years and is moving into drug discovery research from safety and efficacy.

"Michigan has long been innovative and these are times full of tremendous opportunities," said Richard Blouse, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, which sponsors the annual Mackinac Island conference that attracts the state's top political, business and nonprofit leaders.

Another U-M graduate, Domino's CEO and former regent David Brandon, described how Domino's applied innovation to the pizza business by adding online ordering and tracking to mark every step of the pizza-making and delivery process. When the industry saw a decrease in the number of pizzas consumed nationally, particularly at dinnertime, Domino's saw the lunch market growing and added sandwiches.

Today, after just nine months of selling sandwiches, Domino's sells 1 million sandwiches per week, making it the No. 1 sandwich delivery business in the nation, he said.

"We could have sat around and done nothing and hoped things would change, or we could innovate," Brandon said. "But really what we're here to talk about is more than pizza — it's the state of Michigan."

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