U works to transfer research, discovery, expertise to outside world

By Sally Pobojewski
News and Information Services

The University of Michigan is embarking on a mission that could have a positive impact on the Midwest economy and create new faculty research opportunities by strengthening a network of partnerships between U-M researchers and private industry.

It’s called technology transfer, a term used to describe a broad range of activities—including everything from patents and licensing agreements to joint business ventures between university researchers and private corporations.

The first steps toward change have already begun. Plans are being finalized to restructure the U-M Intellectual Properties Office (IPO), placing more emphasis on outreach efforts to business. A search is under way for a new IPO director with background and experience to lead the office in new directions. Technology transfer offices have been opened in the College of Engineering and the Medical School, which together produce more than two-thirds of the U-M’s patentable technology.

“Our goal is to create an environment capable of fulfilling the U-M’s public service responsibility to transfer research results, scientific discovery and technical expertise to those outside the university, including the private sector,” says William C. Kelly, vice president for research.

“We want to assist those faculty members who are seeking ways to build bridges between their research programs and industry,” Kelly adds. “The U-M is committed to doing its part to contribute to the local and regional economy, without sacrificing support for our primary educational mission.”

IPO acting director Anne C. DiSante explains that her office “counsels the faculty to explore all avenues of technology transfer and are encouraged by the University’s heightened interest in supporting these activities. IPO is working with the College of Engineering and the Medical School to focus our joint efforts and build upon the strengths of each technology transfer office and its staff,” she adds.

Several major research universities are jumping on the technology transfer bandwagon, spurred by growing concerns that the United States is losing its technological edge in a globally competitive economy. Even the National Science Foundation (NSF) may soon broaden its research funding to include support for applied research that could have immediate benefits to private industry.

“Thanks to former IPO director, Bob Gavin, the U-M already has a strong intellectual properties program in the area of patents and licensing agreements,” says Marvin Parnes, assistant to the vice president for research. “We want to build on that foundation by attracting venture capital funding and developing options to encourage faculty participation in business ‘spin-offs’ based on U-M research that will benefit the local economy.”

Parnes recognizes that strengthening the network of partnerships between University researchers and private industry will require a long-term, sustained effort. Significant problems remain to be resolved, he says, some of which may require changing current University policies on conflict of interest issues and revenue distribution.

“We need to develop flexible guidelines that will mesh academic freedom with the needs of business without jeopardizing the integrity of a public institution,” Parnes says. “If we can accomplish that, the U-M could be in a position to make a positive contribution to Michigan’s economy and that of the entire Midwest.”


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