Ex-Pfizer site gives University of Michigan chance to reconfigure research operations
The University of Michigan is poised to revolutionize its traditional research structure, establishing new collaborations among its own faculty and expanding its research ties to corporate partners.
The catalyst is the university's acquisition of the 173.5-acre ex-Pfizer campus in northern Ann Arbor - a deal that will allow the university to expand its nearly $1 billion annual research budget by at least 10 percent. That compares to U-M's separate 2008-09 general fund budget of $1.41 billion.
“It’s a way to re-envision actually how the University of Michigan does research fundamentally,” Forrest said. “I don’t think any university has attempted quite what we’re attempting.”
Central to the university’s strategy is the concept of encouraging
daily collaborations among various researchers, departments and
colleges. For example, biomedical researchers and alternative energy
engineers could work side-by-side in pursuit of new biologically driven
In most traditional research arrangements, scientists are segregated
by discipline, but a growing segment of the research community believes innovation is most likely to occur in collaborative
U-M Medical School Dean James Woolliscroft, who’s leading the site transition, said the new campus presents an opportunity to “get these artificial, self-imposed boundaries out of the way.”
“The university has a very collaborative atmosphere compared to a lot of universities. Folks from different colleges even now collaborate on a very extensive basis,” he said. “What we’re wondering is if we can even enhance that collaboratively by bringing them together and, even more importantly, extending beyond the borders of the university.”
The open design of many of the labs lends to collaborative arrangements. Scientists can efficiently communicate ideas and work with colleagues in the open environments.
U-M expects to use portions of the site to engage entrepreneurs, startups and major corporations in new research and economic development initiatives. Key areas are expected to be biomedical research and alternative energy pursuits.
Life sciences research already represents some 64 percent of the collective $1.3 billion annual research budget of the University Research Corridor, a coalition of U-M, Michigan State University and Wayne State University.
Stephen Rapundalo, executive director of Ann Arbor-based MichBio, the state’s life sciences association, said fostering open research arrangements is an important strategy.
“Many of the research buildings on the Pfizer campus were totally open from one end of the building to the other to allow a lot of cross-fertilization of ideas and interaction,” he said.
Rapundalo, who is serving on one of the U-M committees to discuss potential uses of the site, said discussions have centered on how the research campus can accelerate innovation.
The meetings have focused on “How do you bring innovation into an
academic-minded community, how do you foster those public-private
partnerships, but also how we would bring companies in and how do you
mix all that up?” Rapundalo said.
Forrest and Woolliscroft said the university hopes to provide an
improved support structure for its own faculty entrepreneurs. They
declined to provide specifics, saying that the planning process is
“If we don’t help our faculty in their enterprises, they will leave,” Forrest said. “The opportunity cost in that alone is very substantial.”
Ken Nisbet, executive director of U-M’s technology transfer office, said the ex-Pfizer site could provide a smoother course for faculty-led startups.
“We might be able to enhance our ability to do more startup companies, especially related to the research out there,” he said.
The university expects to leverage the site to boost its corporate research partnerships.
"I think it will be very attractive to the corporate world," Ann Arbor SPARK CEO Michael Finney said. "There’s a huge opportunity for (U-M) to do more corporate-sponsored research."