Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Thursday, May 3, 2012

New mentors-in-residence give U-M startups a critical edge

Two serial health care and software entrepreneurs are lending their expertise to university inventors and startups as the newest mentors-in-residence at U-M Tech Transfer.


Bill Brinkerhoff

  Ken Spenser

U-M alumnus Bill Brinkerhoff and former naval aviator Ken Spenser will serve as mentors-in-residence for the next 12-18 months, working alongside licensing and Venture Center staff to assess new discoveries and accelerate new university startups.

As a former vice president at the Plymouth-based pharmaceutical firm Esperion, Brinkerhoff led business development efforts leading to its $1.3 billion acquisition by Pfizer in 2004. He also co-founded Cerenis Theraputics, an Ann Arbor company that created a drug that mimics good cholesterol to treat artherosclerosis. It currently is in clinical trials.

Spenser has raised millions of dollars in venture capital for various firms and is a co-founder of Better Rehab LLC in Ann Arbor. Since 2008 he led the development and sale of the company’s first product to Johnson & Johnson. Spenser also served as CEO of two venture-backed software startups: MES Inc., which was sold to Autodesk, and Entivity, which was sold to Phoenix Contact.

Started in 2008, Tech Transfer’s mentor-in-residence program employs experienced entrepreneurs with specialized venture expertise to enhance U-M’s capabilities in licensing technology and creating high-growth venture-quality startups. They work half time as U-M employees, as part of a rotation that lasts from 12 to 18 months.

Brinkerhoff and Spencer join five other entrepreneurs in the current cohort, which is the largest ever. Other mentors have sector knowledge in software, clean tech, medical devices, bio-pharmaceuticals and more.

“They all have extensive venture experience, so they know what it takes to create a valuable business model and a great team,” says Ken Nisbet, executive director of Tech Transfer.

The program differs from similar entrepreneur-in-residence programs in that each mentor has a portfolio of projects and cannot have a financial stake in a project to assure that his or her advice is impartial.

“Having a mentor take a personal interest in a new startup can be a terrific outcome,” Nisbet says. “I tell them that they will fall in love, but try to make this happen at the end of their rotation.”

That’s what Bill Wood did. After his term ended in 2010, the U-M biotech startup Life Magnetics hired him as interim CEO. Wood worked with its technical founder to raise $1 million in venture funding and launch Life Magnetics as the first tenant in Tech Transfer’s Venture Accelerator.

The newest mentors are excited about their new role.

“The mentor in residence program is a great fit for me, It allows me to use my experience in starting and building companies with University of Michigan faculty and technologies,” says Brinkerhoff, who has a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering and a master’s degree in operations research from the College of Engineering, and an MBA from the Stephen M. Ross School of Business. “The breadth of breakthrough science and technologies at the university is amazing.”

Spenser is looking forward to making this experience worthwhile for the entrepreneurs he works with. “I think it’s like being a grandparent,” he says. “You get to enjoy and brag about your grandkids while the parents — the founders and CEOs — do all the work.”

The mentor-in-residence program also is a core component of the new Tech Transfer Talent Network, which was awarded $2.4 million from the Michigan Economic Development Council. Six other Michigan universities are creating regional mentor and talent programs modeled after Tech Transfer programs such as this one.