University of Michigan's Tech Transfer Office forms business creation services unit
Ken Nisbet is prepared to do just a little bit more.
Michigan entrepreneurs, saddled with the state’s global image crisis, have to go the extra mile to prove to investors and fellow executives that their business ideas are worthwhile.
But Nisbet, executive director of the University of Michigan’s Technology Transfer Office, said it's worth it. That’s why his office is forming the Michigan Venture Center, a one-stop hub to help university faculty create a bulletproof business case for their entrepreneurial ideas.
“We have to really work hard,” Nisbet said. “We have to aggressively promote our capabilities, our attitude, our willingness to build great companies (and) great job opportunities for our state.”
The Michigan Venture Center concept will be revealed to university faculty Tuesday at the Tech Transfer Office’s annual signature event, Celebrate Invention. The Tech Transfer Office handles technology licensing and business creation for the university.
The concept coalesces a variety of services the Tech Transfer Office has developed in recent years. It aims to provide faculty entrepreneurs with an efficient route to forming a business plan, addressing intellectual property issues, connecting with U-M alumni, offering limited funding, attracting talent and securing investors.
The office also employs half a dozen “mentors-in-residence” for one-year periods - technology and business experts who help determine whether faculty business ideas are worth pursuing.
A realization that the economic crisis has created an environment in which funders are choosy with their investment opportunities is driving the Michigan Venture Center. The hub aims to help faculty convince prospective investors and other partners that their business idea can't miss.
“We’re trying to do a better job of preparing our opportunities so our outside partners are willing to take the risk,” Nisbet said.
The initiative reflects a natural step in the Tech Transfer Office’s evolution, Nisbet said. The Tech Transfer Office licenses an average of nine new startup companies annually. But Nisbet wants to increase that figure to 12.
In the fiscal year 2008-09, which ended June 30, the office started eight companies and recorded a 20 percent boost in royalty income to about $15 million. The office also reaped $3 million in equity returns.
Nisbet acknowledged that the global financial crisis briefly slowed licensing activity to a standstill in the early months of 2009.
“Everybody had a downturn this year,” he said. “We were scared at the beginning of the year at how much interest had dropped off. We were delighted in how strong we finished because things really seemed to pick up.”
Leading the initiative is Jim O’Connell, whose tech transfer experience has focused on cultivating U-M biomedical research into businesses.
O’Connell said the Michigan Venture Center can provide an efficient way for faculty to pursue a potential business idea.
“When someone comes to us, we’re designed to be the center of the hub,” he said. “Something comes to us and we funnel it out to the appropriate spoke or spokes to get things moving.”
The Michigan Venture Center could also help the Tech Transfer Office prepare for the university’s increased focus on supporting its own startup companies. U-M officials have indicated that the university may offer space to its own startup companies at Ann Arbor’s 2-million-square-foot ex-Pfizer site, which the university acquired this year for $108 million.
"We think there is opportunity to have synergy of proximity," Nisbet said.