University of Michigan hopes ex-Pfizer site accelerates entrepreneurial transition
The University of Michigan plans to use the ex-Pfizer site in northern Ann Arbor to accelerate a campus-wide embrace of an entrepreneurial atmosphere, officials said today at the Michigan Growth Capital Symposium in Ypsilanti.
U-M executives said they are dissatisfied with the pace of change as the university aims to weave an aggressively entrepreneurial attitude throughout its sprawling operation. They hope that the ex-Pfizer site can serve as a catalyst for change within the university.
Lon Horwedel | AnnArbor.com
“The University of Michigan has a ways to go in creating an environment where people feel there’s an opportunity for them to always express their creativity in an entrepreneurial way,” said Stephen Forrest, U-M’s vice president for research. “That said, I think we are moving very rapidly in the right direction. I have a certain hunger to do a lot better.”
Opportunities created by the Pfizer site acquisition can forcefully expedite change within the university, said Ora Pescovitz, U-M’s executive vice president for medical affairs and CEO of the U-M Health System.
Forrest and Pescovitz said a key priority at the 30-building,
174-acre ex-Pfizer campus is to encourage cross-disciplinary
researchers to work side-by-side to develop new technologies. For
example, biomedical engineers and alternative energy experts could work
together to create new fuel technologies.
That “collocation” strategy is a piece of the university’s ambitious plan to use the 2 million-square-feet of facilities to revolutionize its research and technology commercialization model.
“We anticipate that we will transform the Michigan economy,” Pescovitz said.
U-M earlier this year moved 300 employees into the ex-Pfizer site, which is being gradually revived after the pharmaceutical giant abandoned it in late 2008. The university has already identified a variety of technologies it plans to pursue at the site, including nanotechnology, imaging and health care delivery.
The site, now called North Campus Research Complex, will provide academic researchers, government scientists and university inventors the chance to work cooperatively to deliver new technologies.
“It is our belief that it’s going to change the way science is done and it’s going to lead to an acceleration of discovery and creativity that’s going to accelerate what we’re able to accomplish,” Pescovitz said.
The leadership of the university is actively encouraging faculty members to seek ways to commercialize technologies, cooperate with outside companies and launch startup ventures.
But Forrest said it remains a challenge. He said that, with the notable exception of the College of Engineering, U-M’s 19 schools and colleges are not actively encouraging researchers to commercialize technologies.
“The vast majority are in the category of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ - which is, you can do it, just don’t tell me about it,” he said.
Pescovitz, who joined the university in 2009 after serving as executive associate dean of research affairs at Indiana University, said she was surprised by the pervasively “risk averse” attitude within U-M.
“In spite of us being extremely creative and innovative in our own respective research areas, we are still a bit risk averse,” she said. “I just assumed that, coming to a ‘bluer’ state, faculty in the university would be more liberal in their views on entrepreneurship. When people ask me, ‘What’s the biggest surprise coming to the University of Michigan,’ it was that they were not more entrepreneurial in their thinking than they were in a ‘redder’ state.
“I hope that they will become more risk taking because it does require some risk taking behaviors to do things. Be willing to fail. Accept that perfection is the enemy of good.”
Forrest said a state’s political background is irrelevant to “changing university culture.”
“The most conservative organization in the world is a university,” he said. “They started a thousand years ago, the modern university, and it hasn’t changed a whole lot since.”
But he said he’s hopeful that the university will embrace entrepreneurialism.
“It will change. The alternative is just unthinkable,” he said. “We have to succeed. It’s an imperative. The question is how long and how effectively this will take.”