By Stephen Forrest, Vice President for Research
I am often asked a seemingly simple question: “How did Silicon Valley become Silicon Valley?” You could ask the same question of the Route 128 corridor around Boston, the Research Triangle in North Carolina, and the Seattle, Los Angeles, and Austin innovation clusters. How did they ever emerge? Of course, underlying this question is the obvious corollary: “Will Southeast Michigan ever grow its own Silicon Valley”?
First of all, it is clear that that these clusters were not started by universities. But the presence of world-class universities that serve as a rejuvenating reservoir of both talent and ideas has been a key element essential to their growth, and sustainability. Most importantly, there have been emergent technologies that provided the spark that set off the particular industries that now flourish in these regions. In each case, the universities evolved along with their regions, adapting their own academic strengths and cultures to ensure that a close relationship developed with their neighboring industrial base.
Here in Southeast Michigan, the major industry that is poised to explode is the one that has been here all along: transportation and advanced manufacturing. Clawing our way out of the Great Recession, we now find opportunities here as never before. The Big 3 automotive companies are entering the recovery with surprising strength, and we have innovation centers of many of the major global automotive manufacturers within a 20-mile radius of Ann Arbor. This region is poised to become a major industrial cluster that will define and support the next generation of American advanced manufacturing not only in transportation, but also in renewable energy, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and other areas where manufacturing expertise is the key element to success.
But to be more than just a dream, we must actively embrace—and strengthen—this region’s growing ecosystem of innovation. That is our break from the past, and why transportation alone has not created a sustainable core in here in Michigan over the last 100 years. For the first time, we have all the critical elements for the region to “take off”: we have companies with their advanced labs locating here from all over the world, we have the talent, and we have a university that sits in the center of the action that has sought engagement with its industrial partners as a core institutional value for at least the last decade.
Here are just a couple of examples of moves that U-M has taken in the last 6 months to build our ecosystem:
- Recognize engagement in innovation and entrepreneurship in the faculty tenure and promotion process. This was announced in a letter from the provost to all 19 schools and colleges this last semester. And let’s face it: nothing influences culture more than the faculty evaluation and tenure processes. Indeed, in academia this is truly “where the rubber hits the road”.
- Expedite Research Contracts, by reviewing and refining the processes of U-M’s Office of Research and Sponsored Projects (ORSP) to provide faster, more responsive service to industry and other research sponsors. To ensure success, we have elevated the importance of this office by creating a new Associate VP position to oversee it, reporting directly to the VP for Research. Along with U-M Tech Transfer and our Business Engagement Center, we are creating a seamless, customer-oriented interface between our faculty and industry partners.
- Negotiate IP terms up front, allowing our most substantial industrial partners to pre-negotiate terms for ownership of intellectual property at the outset of a long-term research program. This Michigan Research Advantage Program eliminates one of the biggest impediments to university-industry partnerships: uncertainty in obtaining important IP that is developed under industry sponsorship.
- Establish the Michigan Venture Accelerator at the North Campus Research Complex as a location where our faculty can start their own companies while accessing expert help in being successful. The accelerator is close to planned capacity in only 1 year with 17 companies from 5 of our schools.
- Launch the Michigan Investment in New Technology Start-ups (MINTS) Program, that allows U-M to invest in its own spin off companies. This program is a huge development in how universities engage with their own faculty enterprises.
These are just a few recent examples of how U-M is working with industry, government, and other universities to create the next “Silicon Valley” right here in Southeast Michigan. Many more are on the way. It takes an ecosystem, and we are well on our way to building one that will lay the foundation for a new leap in the progress and prosperity of our region and the nation.Explore posts in the same categories: Economic development, Research enterprise