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Posted on Sun, Nov 15, 2009 : 5:19 a.m.

World-class university facilities can spark creativity

By Daryl Weinert

When I started this monthly column, I promised to explore the myriad ways that a university can ignite innovation. I planned to uncover the daily interactions of students, faculty and companies that spark creativity. Well, sometimes those interactions are catalyzed by a university’s facilities themselves.

For example, Michigan State University is home to the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory (NSCL), the leading rare isotope research facility in North America. Approximately 10% of the United States’ nuclear science doctorates are educated at this facility. At the end of 2008, the U.S. Department of Energy announced MSU as the site for a new $550 million Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB). The NSCL and FRIB have enormous economic development potential and can attract talent to the region, foster technology development and create and attract new companies.

Here in Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan has a total physical plant of over 35 million gross square feet, including 584 major buildings and over 20,000 acres of land (around 3,000 acres are located in Ann Arbor -- the University also has remote facilities such as the 13,000 acre U-M Biological Station in Northern Michigan).

While the U-M is not typically in the business of renting facilities, many research centers have specialized spaces or equipment that aren’t fully utilized. They can offer this excess capacity to outside users for a fee, which helps the university to amortize the costs of buying and maintaining these assets. Indeed, some labs are established at the outset with a specific goal to integrate outside users and academic research.

One exciting example at U-M is the Lurie Nanofabrication Facility (LNF). A recent $60 million renovation enables academic researchers and more than 25 companies to use the lab’s 6,000 square-foot state-of-the-art clean room to develop prototype products for the life sciences, electronics and clean energy industries.

“This type of lab is extremely expensive to build and maintain, and is beyond the budget of many young companies during the earliest stages of product research and fabrication,” explains Sandrine Martin, manager of user services at the LNF. So the National Science Foundation has provided support to assist U-M in offering this facility to researchers from government, industry and other universities nationwide as part of the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network.

A less high-tech, but equally attractive resource for local companies is the university’s many events and meeting spaces. Hosting an event on campus can offer a unique experience, and local companies like DTE Energy and Google have worked with the University Unions group (which oversees rentals at the Michigan Union, the Michigan League, and the North Campus Pierpont Commons) to organize memorable functions.

Looking to the future, the university’s recent purchase of the former Pfizer research campus (now known as the North Campus Research Complex or NCRC) offers enormous potential to better integrate outside innovators in the work of faculty and students on campus. With two million square feet of existing buildings, and 175 undeveloped acres, this facility has the potential to transform the interface between academia and business, and to drive economic diversification for the state and region. However, this potential can only be realized if both the university and industry can develop creative legal and administrative structures that unleash the resources that each brings to the table while preserving the unique strengths that make them useful partners.

The University of Michigan has recently developed an online database of facilities on campus available for outside use. To access this database please visit the Business Engagement Center’s homepage at

Daryl Weinert is the Executive Director of the University of Michigan’s Business Engagement Center.