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Posted on Tue, May 11, 2010 : 5:30 p.m.

University of Michigan hopes ex-Pfizer site accelerates entrepreneurial transition

By Nathan Bomey

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.


The University of Michigan wants to use the ex-Pfizer site to encourage its faculty members to embrace an entrepreneurial attitude.

Lon Horwedel |

“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.”

Contact's Nathan Bomey at (734) 623-2587 or You can also follow him on Twitter or subscribe to's newsletters.


Neal Clinthorne

Wed, May 12, 2010 : 12:22 p.m.

Entrepreneurship not moving fast enough? Seeing this from the perspective of someone who has a foot in both the entrepreneurial world and the University, the reasonsbut not necessarily the solutionsare complex. As far as collectivism vs. individualism or university faculty seeking refuge inside the ivory tower, I respectfully but strongly disagree. To conduct frontline research at a top university, faculty must not only be top-notch in the science of their field but also expert in marketing their ideas to funding agencies and in persevering through the inevitable failures and rejections. Its a hypercompetitive marketplace where those who are not fully committed will not do well. In my view, these frontline investigators are already entrepreneurs, albeit with only a few customers. The NCRC, and all that means with company creation and collaboration, will definitely happen. The alternative is that the research enterprise of the University will cease to grow with its current reliance on federally funded research grants. Government-funded research will likely not continue growing at the pace it has in the last four decades and proposals to significantly increase federal funds available will, in my opinion, be dead on arrival in the real world. A formula for sustainable funding is to somehow tie it to value creation and one way to do that is to participate in commercialization based on results of research through licensing, equity participation, or both. Actually getting to that point will be a process. Cultural changes in any large organization are difficult (see Quinns excellent book, "Deep Change"). Presently, there are disincentives for commercialization activities. Faculty are promoted largely on the their independence as evidenced by a portfolio of federally funded research and peer-reviewed publications. Commercialization and inventions dont receive the same weight. Moreover, they take valuable time away from increasing ones federally funded footprint. Nevertheless, there are many faculty within the University who view it as necessary and will continue to commercialize their work. Its an efficient way to bring research results to the public. Not all faculty need to do it. Nor should all--or even most--research be focused on commercial application. And while the University has a big role to play in developing the entrepreneurial ecosystem an equally important piece is regional attitude. For at least the last sixty years Michigans economy has been dominated by the auto industry with its few big companies. Roles within those companies were highly specialized with little leeway for individual innovation or tolerance for risk. As a consequence, we are only just beginning to re-awaken the talents needed for success in start-up and second-stage companies. It will take time to travel this winding road, but I am 100% confident that Michigan will be every bit as entrepreneurial and successful as the present-day Silicon Valley. The NCRC will be part of the mix that gets us there.

Top Cat

Wed, May 12, 2010 : 9:58 a.m.

I still think the Pfizer site should be used for a minor league baseball park. Imagine a contest to name the team.

Ravella Ryder

Wed, May 12, 2010 : 9:42 a.m.

What on earth are they talking about? Does Forrest even read his own hype? Lycera achieves $11M series A funding milestone - not Engineering UM start-up nanobio to develop intranasal treatment for hepatitis - not engineering HealthMedia - not engineering And I didn't even bother to go past the first page of his own website. Looking at the last annual report (see if you can find it on your own website), there were 131 inventions in the Medical School and 158 in Engineering. Hmm.. Finally... why is everything have to devolve to politics? Red vs. blue. Gheez. Risk adversity starts with the leadership. You two need mirrors.


Wed, May 12, 2010 : 8:32 a.m.

The biggest problem when Pfizer abandoned Ann Arbor is that they took the tax dollars with them. They were the largest tax payer in Ann Arbor. UM buying the property did not fix this tax shortfall, as UM does not pay property taxes. At some point I hope that there are ongoing business ventures generating profits and pyaing taxes rather than State/Federally funded/ subsidized organizations that do not pay taxes and do not make profits.


Wed, May 12, 2010 : 8:12 a.m.

Let's not forget about the opportunity for our community to bennifit from this awesome facility. Let's get High School/Middle School science classes and summer learning programs started. And why not students from all over the state. This will truly provide maximum functionality to this facity and open it up to the next generation of entrepenurs

5c0++ H4d13y

Wed, May 12, 2010 : 5:09 a.m.

The b-school had a short course focused on entrepreneurship. I think they offered it once but I haven't heard anything since then.

say it plain

Tue, May 11, 2010 : 10:47 p.m.

I don't get what 'red' versus 'blue' *or* 'independent' versus 'collectivist' has to do with why some top-notch university researchers don't tend to be 'entrepreneurial'. I suppose one could argue that academic types are 'hiding' in their ivory towers. Or else, more generously--and accurately, I believe--one could say they tend to get stoked more by theoretical matters than by practical. Their doctoral dissertations and professional writings weren't likely about bringing product to market; not in most fields anyhow. And they didn't read like business plans either, I'm guessing. Instead, they covered theoretical concerns in their fields, questions of interpretational controversies, or of testing one theory or another. One could get collaboration going that leads to innovations relevant to new technologies, but I'm not very inspired by the leadership rhetoric reported here. I myself wouldn't call it 'hiding', but surely many academics may have been a little turned off by 'aggressively entrepreneurial attitude' of their peers who went into more, um, business-plan-y pursuits...those folks tended to find the intellectual angles tedious and of low 'value'. I might thusly remain uninspired by my new 'leader' claiming she was surprised I wasn't trying to patent the next nano-tech process or the next molecular cure-all so that my parent institution could pad its endowment and maybe also spawn some spinoffs, ugh.

John Galt

Tue, May 11, 2010 : 8:51 p.m.

I also thought to myself..."what are they talking about with the blue and red thing?" My experience is that the folks that tend to be more self-sufficient and independant are more likely to engage in risk-taking for business, etc. They do not rely on a government or large organization/company to take care of them, rather they roll-up the sleeves and do it themselves. (Sure, a grant or corporate support helps....) It does not surprise me that a university is risk averse. Many go there to hide from the world in safe academic environments. The attitude is collectivist, not individualist. Don't get me wrong....a university environment is good for 'outside the box' thinking and collaboration. It funds ideas that may not get enough support in industry. However, it is weak at transitioning to a commercial product. Bridging that gap is a real challenge. One way to encourage it is to share the rewards with the researchers and staff to make sure they benefit adequately from the successes.

Erich Jensen

Tue, May 11, 2010 : 8:38 p.m.

Happy almost first anniversary of doing nothing with the old Pfizer campus!


Tue, May 11, 2010 : 6:20 p.m.

I applaud the philosophy of promoting an "aggressively entrepreneurial attitude" within the University. However, the comment made describing UM VP Ora Pescovitz's surprise to realize the lack of this attitude at the UM, is interesting. She said I just assumed that, coming to a bluer state, faculty in the university would be more liberal in their views on entrepreneurship." I know a lot of people with an "aggressively entrepreneurial attitude" and they are not "blue" in their philosphical perspective. They are creative, but not philosphically "blue." Most liberal minded people seem to be content with big government doing their thinking for them. Most "red" minded thinkers believe in self sufficiency, which is synonymous with the entrepreneurial attitude. The country's "red" states show the greatest promise for job growth through creative entrepreneurship. Just look at the growth in population in these "red" states. Additionally, companies are moving from California to Idaho, from Michigan to Texas. Blue to Red, not Red to Blue. Did I miss something here?