New 'venture accelerator' coming soon to Michigan

The University of Michigan will be taking advantage of the former office and research buildings Pfizer left behind in Ann Arbor, Mich. by setting up "venture accelerators."


Kai Ryssdal: What do you do if you're a major university, and a sprawling research facility all but falls right into your lap? You could go the traditional business incubator route. Or you could do what the University of Michigan is doing and prepare to open up what it's calling a "venture accelerator."

As Jennifer Guerra reports now from Michigan Radio, the move marks a new strategy in how universities try to bring the fruits of their research to market.

Jennifer Guerra: When the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer left Ann Arbor, Mich., more than three years ago, it left behind the equivalent of a small town: A collection of 30 buildings, including science labs, a water plant and drug factory, scattered across nearly 200 acres.

The former research park is on land that had been owned by the University of Michigan, so the university decided to buy it back and turn the facility into a kind of business incubator on steroids.

Doug Neal: In some ways, what we're really trying to do is create controlled chaos.

Doug Neal is with U of M's Center for Entrepreneurship, one of the groups affiliated with the project. He says in traditional incubators, collaborations with the private sector typically happen only after researchers have figured out how to translate their work into marketable products.

In a twist, the University of Michigan is inviting venture capitalists, business development experts and for-profit companies to set up shop in the new "venture accelerator" right alongside the researchers.

Darryl Weinert heads up the facility's business engagement center.

Darryl Weinert: The idea is to make this a springboard for even more interactions with companies.

Floor plans call for big open spaces with comfy chairs, coffee bars and white boards where eventually more than 3,000 scientists, engineers and others are expected to gather and share ideas.

The center is scheduled to open next year, and Chris Rizik is among the venture capitalists thinking about moving in. His investment fund holds nearly $50 million from some of Michigan's biggest corporations.

Chris Rizik: What I'd love to see is this kind of center where there's this constant feedback loop: Feedback from venture capitalists or from corporations, back to the researchers, saying you've got this great research, here's a need for it, can you do your research so that you're solving real problems out there in the world?

But some worry closer ties between university researchers and private industry could increase the potential for corporations to dictate how research is conducted.

Sheldon Krimsky is the author of a book about university and industry collaborations called "Science in the Private Interest."

Sheldon Krimsky: Corporations are interested in getting things out on to the marketplace. Universities traditionally have been interested in producing credible, objective knowledge. When you mix these two, the tendency is that the values of academia start to erode.

Officials with the University of Michigan venture accelerator say they plan to keep a close watch for undue corporate influence. At the same time, they see greater collaboration between business and academia as a key driver of innovation and job creation in the future.

In Ann Arbor, Mich., I'm Jennifer Guerra for Marketplace.

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This story almost leads you to believe that they're using the entire facility as a business incubator. I'm pretty sure that isn't the case.

Great point about sustainability, Alejandro. In fact, U-M Tech Transfer has a large and growing pipeline of cleantech startups (PV, batteries, supercaps, green fleet management, etc) that will soon benefit from our venture accelerator. We also work closely with the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise (our MBA/MS program established in 1996), the Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute, the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute, and the U-M Board of Regents to ensure our quest for knowledge (and sustainability) is properly balanced with the "private interests" that allow high-potential, high-value technologies to reach the marketplace.

Incidentally, in our Michigan startup ecosystem, those private interests are most often the faculty inventors/founders, local entrepreneurs, and angels/VCs with real “skin in the game” rather than the “Corporations” (presumably engaged in sponsored research) to which Dr. Krimsky refers. Like you, we are growing a whole new breed of socially and environmentally responsible companies here while fighting the “erosion” of our technological leadership and national economy. Good luck with your Business Accelerator!

Great idea. We're doing something similar in the Green MBA (10 yr old program) at Dominican University of California, we've been working on getting a Business Accelerator underway for a few months now, though our focus is not just business, it's on Sustainable Enterprise. I hope U of M sets as one of their priorities, incorporating sustainability into their mission/vision for their accelerator, as centers like these will be creating leading ventures of the future, and the future is all about sustainability.

Steroid - Just a reminder on this current cliché. The use requires a prescription. The abuse may involve jail time.


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