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Posted on Sat, Aug 20, 2011 : 5:58 a.m.

What do mechanical engineers and doctors have in common? Plenty, says new U-M executive

By Nathan Bomey

Ann Arbor entrepreneurial executive Scott Olson will lead the University of Michigan's Medical Innovation Center in another sign of the university's desire to integrate more business wisdom into its economic development efforts.


Scott Olson, new director of University of Michigan Medical Innovation Center

Photo courtesy of the University of Michigan

Olson — a vice president at economic development group Ann Arbor SPARK from 2007 to 2009 and an executive at medical devices firm MedArray — was named as director of the Medical Innovation Center.

Olson, who played a key role in the development of SPARK's life sciences incubator in Plymouth Township, will lead the Medical Innovation Center's efforts to give post-graduate students the training necessary to spin off technologies into companies.

The three-year-old center — created by several different university schools and departments — emphasizes a collaborative innovation process that brings together people from various fields, such as mechanical engineering and medical technologies.

The university believes that multi-disciplinary research holds answers for key technological questions facing the medical field.

Among the early products of the Medical Innovation Center is an Ann Arbor-based spinoff called Tangent Medical Technologies, which secured $750,000 in private funding to continue developing an alternative to traditional intravenous (IV) drug delivery systems.

Olson said the Medical Innovation Center's structure encourages innovative thinking. Post-grad fellows take a year to pursue product ideas and enhance their understanding of commercializing early-stage technologies.

"So rather than starting with an invention and trying to find a place it fits, they start with a clean slate and identify what’s not being done or what are some things that could be significantly improved — and then come up with ways to improve it," Olson said, describing the innovation process. Olson, a 14-year resident of Ann Arbor, recently spoke with's Nathan Bomey. Excerpts: What made you decide to take this job?

Scott Olson: The opportunity to dive into something and really make a difference was really what drew me to it. It was harder to leave MedArray just because I had been so invested in there for 2.5 years.

It just made a lot of sense to join an organization that could use my background and leadership that has the opportunity to impact literally thousands of lives and people all over the world. That was a huge draw. The university is making a huge push to get more economic development out of its research. What can the Medical Innovation Center contribute toward that?

Scott Olson: We take really two pieces of the mission. One is continued education (focused on) moving smart innovation forward into a commercial environment, whether that’s a license or a company that spins out.

We take a group of post-graduate fellows and move them through a yearlong process in which they identify unmet medical needs. So rather than starting with an invention and trying to find a place it fits, they start with a clean slate and identify what’s not being done or what are some things that could be significantly improved — and then come up with ways to improve it.

The second piece of it is concept-to-commercialization support, (providing) mentoring and guidance and resource identification for academic ventures or innovators.

The additional resource there is the prototyping lab, which allows concepts to move from the model state into something physical, something you can actually see or fit to a tool or take to an outside party who might be interested in licensing or producing it. That’s a really important and valuable piece of the puzzle as well.

We’re going to be producing novel medical innovations of many different types that can have an impact on patients of all types and can be produced somewhere, hopefully the Ann Arbor region.

But more importantly, we’re going to be producing people who understand the commercialization process. The center was formed collaboratively with multiple different entities within the university involved. Is that a key part of its future success?

Olson: Absolutely. A lot of ideas and opportunities come out of both the College of Engineering and the Medical School. Harnessing that talent and those ideas collaboratively and bringing in the business focus from the Ross School and the Zell Lurie Institute just makes perfect sense.

Across campus, you have tremendous resources at many schools — the Dental School, the School of Public Health, the Law School. We see this as evolving over time to be even more collaborative than it started out to be. It feels like a lot of the medical innovation that’s come out of the university over the last few years has been focused on medical devices, at least some of the most successful efforts. Are medical devices where you see most of the action? Or do you see there being opportunities in drugs? Where do you see the focus?

Olson: We were formed by a surgeon and a mechanical engineer, and they have their own experience of coming up with innovative devices. Another reason I expect there will continue to be devices and instrumentation innovation continue to come out is because of the path to market.

There’s things that can be done that have a very short regulatory path compared to therapeutics, which have a very long regulatory path and require a lot of money to accomplish. So in my vision, there will be a mix of many types of medical innovations. Pharmaceuticals and biologics are so capital intensive. Although we certainly have a few successful companies like that in the Ann Arbor area, we don’t have the capital that you have in Silicon Valley or Boston to develop companies like that all the time. So maybe that’s one reason to focus on devices.

Olson: It is. One issue the entrepreneur faces is access to capital. What we know about drug development is it’s very expensive, it takes a very long time, and it’s very high risk. How important is a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem in Ann Arbor to the Medical Innovation Center?

Olson: It’s very important. We use a lot of community resources to educate the fellows. The entrepreneurial energy doesn’t occur only inside the university, but it’s fed and nurtured and permeates out into the community and vice versa.

The more attention and awareness there is on the inside of the university about the (development of a) vibrant entrepreneurial community in Ann Arbor, the better off everybody is.

In the first three years of the Innovation Center, two companies have spun out. Both of them are still in the area, both of them are taking advantage of the entrepreneurial energy in the Ann Arbor area.

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


John A2

Sat, Aug 20, 2011 : 6:11 p.m.

Good Luck!

Dug Song

Sat, Aug 20, 2011 : 11:54 a.m.

Actually, Stryker should be funding its own accelerator program. Nate Walkingshaw, a former EMT (and incidentally, former pro skateboarder! :-) built a category-leading medical equipment company (evacuation sleds, hospital beds, etc.) bought by Stryker in Kalamazoo - exactly the kind of thing we need more of here. Why aren't they involved? Is there any way for outside partners to be investors, not donors?

Dug Song

Sat, Aug 20, 2011 : 11:36 a.m.

Life Magnetics (originally called InstaTell, one of our very first a2newtech presenters two years ago: <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a> ), funded by Arboretum Ventures last year, is the poster child for this kind of thing. Brandon was a UM physics postdoc - not medical researcher - who happened upon a medical application for the technology he'd developed through his lifelong hardware hacking experience (he produced the first prototype of his $100 medical device at home) and collaboration with friends at the U (e.g. Rodney Agayan). Researchers need to get out of the lab and actually make things. Lots of opportunities exist for this, at all levels - commercial facilities like <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a> (and the monthly GO-Tech meetup), the existing fab lab at Taubman, or even the AHAshop at <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a>. Small projects like Otyp's 96-well open-source PCR machine (originally crowd-funded through Kickstarter: <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a> ) are the creative fodder for real companies to develop (<a href="" rel='nofollow'></a> - but you have to start somewhere. It would be interesting to see if life sciences could be seeded similarly to healthcare startups. I've advised the <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a> folks in Grand Rapids that they could try a similar tack to <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a> , given the $1+ billion invested on their Medical Mile, to produce fast-moving, capital-efficient startups in the sector (two of my Bay Area friends are RockHealth advisors, including <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a> who's back in Ann Arbor every 6 weeks). It does seem life science commercialization is slow and inefficient (with serious externalities, like FDA approval). Three years, and only two companies? Hopefully Scott can help move them from a laundry list of &quot;innovation projects&quot; (<a href="" rel='nofollow'></a> ) through actual commercialization (make something people wa


Sat, Aug 20, 2011 : 10:27 a.m.

What do Republicans and Tea Zombies have in common? Plenty says everyone being ignored.


Sun, Aug 21, 2011 : 2:54 a.m.

I was distracted. Was there reason to look at the words you put together, today? I didn't think so. I'll just read them tomorrow, and the next day. I'd rather get an enema.


Sun, Aug 21, 2011 : 2:09 a.m.

Are you naive enough to think that only republicans or tea partiers break the law? Or just not honest enough to admit it? See the problem?


Sun, Aug 21, 2011 : 1:05 a.m.

They still obey the law, though. See the problem?


Sat, Aug 20, 2011 : 7:14 p.m.

Thanks for injecting your deep thoughts (Ha) into the mix. What do Liberals and kids have in common? The more you give them the more they want!