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Research, innovation and the economy: Q&A with URC VPs of Research

Research VPs, L-R: Ian Gray, MSU; Hilary Ratner, WSU; Stephen Forrest, U-M
Research VPs, L-R: Ian Gray, MSU; Hilary Ratner, WSU; Stephen Forrest, U-M
No one understands the transformational role research will play in Michigan's future better than the vice presidents of research at Michigan's major research universities. So we invited them to a conversation about the ecosystem of innovation and entrepreneurship, our emerging bioeconomy, and the URC as "an epicenter of transformation." 
How is the role of research universities changing relative to furthering our state's economic future? 
Stephen R. Forrest (U-M): Our research universities are becoming more proactive and involved than ever in encouraging economic development. We are actively seeking partnerships with government, industry, and other universities that can lead to a more diverse, sustainable, and successful economy. Working with regional development agencies such as Ann Arbor SPARK and the MEDC, we are also helping to make it clear that Michigan is a great place for new or existing businesses to locate. 
Ian Gray (MSU): We have strong third-party validation that we are on the right path. In his recent op-ed in the Detroit Free Press explaining why GE is investing in Michigan, Jeff Immelt, chairman and CEO of GE, said, "In an economy that increasingly requires highly trained and highly skilled workers, we saw a state that was home to world-class universities and hard-working, dedicated professionals with deep knowledge in new technology." 
Hilary Ratner (WSU): Universities of today are the epicenter of a transformation to create new economies in our state, and key to this role is their research and research-based education they provide. The creation of new technologies is the core of an innovative campus, and URC faculty are very engaged in these efforts as they create a better future for Michigan and beyond.
Given your travels across the United States and internationally, how is Michigan viewed as an innovation cluster?
SF: The word is starting to get out that that the URC universities represent one of the top innovation clusters in the nation. In terms of the number of start-up companies based on technologies developed at URC universities, that is certainly the case. A good measure of how we are perceived is that people are calling on us to participate in broader initiatives to spur innovation and entrepreneurship. For example, the Department of Commerce recently tapped President Coleman to co-chair the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship, a group charged with helping to strengthen our national "ecosystem" of innovation and entrepreneurship, of which universities are a key part. 

It is also significant that the first regional Patent Office has been established in Detroit.
What changes in research sponsorship is the Federal Government considering and how would this impact academic research?

IG: We see two overarching trends at the national level: first, a stronger commitment to supporting translational science, that is, research that has direct applications for innovation or improving the quality of life; and second, an emphasis on interdisciplinary initiatives to solve the world's most complex problems.
The first trend is understandable in a resource-constrained environment. The nation's political leaders want to be sure that every dollar spent on research has a direct impact on improving the economy and the well-being of our citizens, that the ideas we are pursuing have defined purposes. Finding renewable energy solutions, curing devastating diseases, increasing the world's food supply: These are easy-to-understand goals. 
The difficulty is that basic research is a very long, expensive process that may or may not produce a translational outcome. But without basic research, we don't have a pipeline to produce translational outcomes. As a society, we have to balance the desire to fund immediate solutions with the need to invest in the future, which may offer much better solutions.
The second national funding trend is the emphasis on supporting interdisciplinary research. This stems from the reality that no one scientist has the knowledge needed to solve today's incredibly complex, interrelated world problems. More food, better water, and renewable energy are just a few of the dilemmas that will require the deep subject knowledge of systems analysts, biologists, geneticists, physicists, engineers, and social scientists working together to find viable solutions. 
Consistent with the national average, nearly two-thirds of the research expenditures by URC universities are in the life science sector. Could you elaborate on the importance of this sector to the URC universities?
HR: The life science sector will continue to be a major target of industry. The majority of research at the URC universities is health related, so statistically that will predominate in their portfolios. A second, more interesting reason, relates to the state of the pharmaceutical industry at large. Many of the most lucrative patents in drug development will be expiring in the next few years.There has been a relative dearth of new drugs to replace them—the well-known pipeline problem. Further, many pharma industries have greatly cut back on their in-house research.  All this comes together to place continuing emphasis on working with universities in this sector. Another area of life science commercialization is medical device development. This requires collaboration between engineering faculties and medical researchers/practitioners. This part of the life science sector is increasing and can be expected to continue to do so.
IG: Recently we have seen an important change in the way people think about "life sciences." Many policymakers now refer to the whole range of disciplines focused on biology as the "bioeconomy," a clear sign that society is recognizing the value of research progress in these areas, its ability to drive technological growth, and, ultimately, its positive impact on the economy. Just recently, the White House released the National Bioeconomy Blueprint to outline its strategy for fostering the growth of the emerging bioeconomy. 
SF: The rising volume of research in life sciences in this region, coupled with the growing number of life sciences companies in this region, is helping to establish the "critical mass" of resources that can lead to sustained innovation and economic impact. We are fortunate to have research strengths across the board in high potential areas ranging from embryonic stem cells to biomedical devices. This is an excellent opportunity for us to strengthen and diversify our economic base.
How are the universities engaging industry to support private sector research opportunities (i.e. Corporate Relations Offices,  Tech Transfer)?
IG: The sheer complexity and scope of today's scientific breakthroughs now require cross-disciplinary teams of researchers – physicists, chemists, systems analysts, molecular biologists. Companies can no longer anticipate what types of expertise they might require to make product innovations, much less assure themselves of having the right people on staff.
By pooling company resources for short-term projects with the university's long-term commitments in people and equipment, we have an opportunity to make significant progress in the most efficient ways possible.
Do you foresee any new initiatives or trends across the URC universities regarding commercialization of university research?
HR: The growing trend in universities like the URC are collaborating and sharing best practices resources such as the Technology Transfer Talent Network. This will stimulate the assessment and commercialization of university technologies at each institution, ultimately impacting our local and state economies.
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