Support for research universities helps drive Michigan economy


On May 15, I joined my fellow University Research Corridor (URC) presidents—Mary Sue Coleman of University of Michigan and Jay Noren of Wayne State University— to testify at a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education hearing on the vital role the URC universities play in advancing the states’ economy, now and in the future.

Each of us addressed a facet of the positive impact of Michigan’s research universities. Mary Sue Coleman highlighted ways in which our universities are investing in initiatives that create jobs and stimulate investment right now. Jay Noreen outlined our investment in financial aid and commitment to ensuring access to world-class education for Michigan Students.

My testimony focused on the ways in which our universities are looking to the future, making long-term investments to position the state for success in the 21st century economy.

Reinforcing our comments were leaders from three economic development organizations—David Hollister of Prima Civitas in Lansing; Mike Finney of Ann Arbor SPARK, and Randal Charlton of TechTown in Detroit—who spoke to the subcommittee about the importance of collaboration to leverage our assets.

We were also joined by three recent graduates who plan to make their careers in Michigan. The graduates talked about their remarkable experiences in entrepreneurship. Elizabeth Kunkle, a graduate of MSU’s James Madison College, worked with classmates in a Michigan Futures seminar last semester to develop Spotlight Michigan, an enterprise that identifies and promotes connections between innovative businesses and promising students.

The testimony of these three URC graduates carried the message that many of our best and brightest are interested in staying in Michigan and contributing to the state’s future. “On the first day of class our professors asked how many of us planned on staying in Michigan following graduation,” Kunkle told us. “There were some tentative hands raised until they reworded the question, ‘How many of you would like to stay in Michigan?’ The answer was an almost unanimous yes.”

My remarks before the subcommittee are below.

Michigan’s research universities are focusing on the future. We’re hewing to Michigan’s tradition of bold vision and fostering innovation by creatively applying knowledge to real-world problems.

But let’s acknowledge from the outset that Michigan’s revival will come community by community, building on our unique strengths. And that’s what the URC is about.

We’re already in every county of Michigan, be it advancing health care, facilitating community development, monitoring the environment, promoting better land use, retraining our workforce, or extending educational opportunities.

The URC allows us to better align our assets, strengthening our ability to engage statewide while at the same time enhancing our external reach and reputation.

Agrifood/agribusiness is a bedrock component of the state’s economy, one that only continues to grow. Programs such as the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station and MSU Extension will ensure that will continue. Every new breed of crop our researchers develop—when it’s adopted by farmers—that’s university technology transfer in action.

But let me give you some examples of how your research universities are nurturing the other 21st-century industries in Michigan.

Life sciences come easily to mind. At Wayne State University’s TechTown research park, Wayne County is backing the state’s first stem-cell commercialization lab. Wayne State is aiming to collaborate there not just with Michigan universities but institutions around the world.

Also at TechTown is an innovative technology company called SenSound, which is commercializing Wayne State technology for three-dimensional sound mapping. SenSound develops software based on mathematical formulas and has landed several Small Business Innovation Research grants and private contracts. It was named one of the Michigan 50 Companies to Watch by the Edward Lowe Foundation in 2006.

And we won’t ignore the auto industry, which continues to offer a platform for our engineering and technology. General Motors (GM) and the University of Michigan earlier this year formed a new partnership to develop the next generation of high-efficiency vehicles powered by diverse energy sources.

U-M spin-off company Sakti3 has joined with GM to seek federal stimulus funding for electric-vehicle battery production.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) also recently selected U-M and MSU to help develop high-efficiency internal combustion engines. U-M will explore high-pressure, lean-burn technologies, and MSU will work with Chrysler to demonstrate a closed-loop, combustion-controlled engine.

Our universities all maintain long-standing research-and-development links with the U.S. Department of Defense’s vehicle development center in Warren.

Michigan State’s Composite Vehicle Research Center has two new mid-Michigan companies associated with it. One is commercializing a graphite-based nanomaterial that makes better plastic. The other is developing three-dimensional weaving technology to give composite fibers more complex patterns and more resistance to impacts.

Let’s talk about energy and fuel. U-M and MSU are each slated to host a DOE Energy Frontier Research Center, part of a big federal push for energy breakthroughs. MSU will lead a $12.5 million program, working with U-M and Wayne State, to improve electricity transmission technology by converting heat back into electricity.

Using another recent DOE grant of $19.5 million, U-M will explore new materials to better convert solar energy to electricity.

MSU a while ago landed a large share of the DOE’s $135 million Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center. That project involves 36 key scientists and $900,000 in monthly research expenditures.

We’re attacking biofuels from a lot of angles, including an MSU Agricultural Experiment Station program compiling genetic databases of biofuel crops and a development program to pretreat crop waste to make cellulosic ethanol production easier.

We also recently landed a $1.4 million federal allocation for a new biofuel research program at the MSU Upper Peninsula Tree Improvement Center in Escanaba, partnering with Michigan Technological University.

The DOE in December awarded MSU the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB). That half-billion-dollar-plus facility will attract top scientists from around the world to Michigan to make new discoveries about our universe.

You’ve probably heard that FRIB is expected to bring a billion dollars in economic activity and hundreds of jobs to Michigan. You might not know that one of our senior physicists is also a high-technology manufacturing entrepreneur.

Terry Grimm is president of Niowave in Lansing, which just acquired a Virginia company that will better position it to supply components for superconducting particle accelerators around the world. The company also hires former autoworkers who have been retrained through a Lansing Community College program.

We in the URC are applying our technologies to leverage Michigan’s traditional—and still formidable—strengths in manufacturing and chemical-industry innovation. Private investors are validating us, even in this troubled economy.

There’s Draths Corp., a next-generation chemical company in Okemos based on MSU’s “green science.” Draths is scaling up to manufacture the chemicals used to make nylon, coatings, and other products using renewable resources instead of petrochemicals.

Draths was founded by MSU chemists John and Karen Frost. The company raised $21 million in new venture funding in the first quarter of this year, despite the worst quarter for venture capital in 12 years.

To their investors, the Frosts are emphasizing the value of Michigan’s human and physical assets. Draths already employs former Pfizer scientists and now is talking to former Dow Chemical people.

All told, they expect to add about 200 researchers and administrators over the next 10 years. These are, in John Frost’s words, “gold-collar jobs,” with an average salary of $85,000 or more.

Like us, the Frosts are committed to Michigan. They are working with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation to locate or build a $20 million pilot manufacturing plant, looking to operate in a place such as Kalamazoo, Midland, or Ann Arbor.

At the same time, homegrown Ann Arbor company Lycera—a University of Michigan technology spin-off—also closed on $36 million of venture capitalization in the first quarter.

That company focuses on the life science side of chemistry, developing small-molecule drugs for treating autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.

That’s a sample of what your research universities are doing to help transition Michigan to a 21st-century, knowledge-based economy—while we also strive to be better, more accessible partners to Michigan businesses and entrepreneurs.


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