Leadership Perspective: The statewide impacts of U-M’s research and innovative enterprise

As associate vice president for research and innovation partnerships, Kelly Sexton, PhD, works closely with leadership from across the University of Michigan and beyond to develop and implement a strategic vision for innovation, corporate research and technology commercialization activities, including oversight of Innovation Partnerships. In this role, she designs, supports and enhances universitywide programs for intellectual property development, innovation, and engagement with business and venture communities in the region, across the nation, and around the globe.

As associate vice president for research and innovation partnerships, what are some of the most exciting aspects of research and innovation at the University of Michigan? 

The University of Michigan’s research enterprise is an engine for creativity, discovery and innovation. At Innovation Partnerships, our role is to ensure that every U-M research discovery is best positioned to positively impact society. We accomplish this by supporting the translation and commercialization of innovations created by researchers working across U-M’s three campuses and health system. This work gives us a front-row seat to see incredible new inventions ranging from renewable energy, life-saving medical devices, new treatments for disease, automotive technologies and beyond. U-M excels at fostering an environment that makes it possible for researchers from diverse disciplines to build deep collaborations, creating exciting new interdisciplinary research breakthroughs. It is truly an honor to work with the faculty and researchers that are leaders in their fields and support them in their mission to see their research have a positive societal impact.  

How does U-M’s Innovation Partnerships assist researchers in increasing the impact of their work? 

The University of Michigan is the nation’s third-largest research university, based on total volume, surpassing $1.7 billion in research expenditures during Fiscal Year 2022. In order for society to realize all of the benefits of this investment in research, we must transfer these innovations to the entrepreneurs and businesses, both large and small, that can take these innovations and transform them into the life-saving therapeutics, medical devices, diagnostics and new technologies that enhance societal wellbeing and improve lives.  

Innovation Partnerships is the university’s central research commercialization arm, and our office is structured to be a front door for faculty that want to see their research have a positive impact at scale through commercialization. This could involve creating a new research collaboration with an industry partner, patenting and licensing of a new technology or forming a new startup company. Our office’s three teams—Corporate Research Alliances, Licensing and Ventures—are here to help. 

Many times, the path for commercialization involves the formation of a new startup company. These startup companies attract the investment capital and resources needed to take a new technology from the laboratory to the marketplace. Of course, building and growing a startup company is a tremendous challenge and involves skills that are not often part of the typical academic toolkit. One of the distinguishing features of our office is our robust mentor-in-residence program. These “MIRs” have experience and expertise as serial entrepreneurs, business advisors and investors, and we pair them with faculty-led research teams to develop and execute a commercialization strategy. Our MIR program is a primary factor in us being able to routinely launch 20-30 new startup companies a year. This program is part of the statewide Technology Transfer Talent Network, which is made possible by a partnership with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation

How does U-M’s research enterprise impact the economy of the state of Michigan?

U-M’s research and innovation engine has direct impacts on the state’s economy through the researchers it employs, the research reagents and equipment purchased, as well as through the commercialization of research discoveries and technologies.  

The university is one of the largest employers in the state and our research enterprise is a key contributor. In the last year, sponsored research projects supported nearly 18,000 U-M researchers.  These funded projects purchase scientific equipment and partner with businesses throughout our state, and last fiscal year alone, this directly contributed an additional $126 million to Michigan’s economy through the purchase of goods and services from Michigan-based companies. 

We are also one of the nation’s top universities for both the number of inventions created and startups launched. These startups go on to raise investment capital in order to grow their businesses, and they create new jobs that diversify our state’s economy.  In fact, in the past 3 years alone, U-M startup companies based in Michigan have raised $410 million in venture capital and angel investment. Overall, U-M startups have created more than 3,700 jobs right here in Michigan, representing diverse industries from biotechnology, legal technology, clean energy,  cybersecurity, mobility and artificial intelligence.

What are some of the different ways that the impact of U-M’s innovators is seen throughout Michigan? 

U-M innovations have the potential to improve the quality of life for people around the world, and by being home to where so many of these innovations are first commercialized, Michiganders often have early access to the resulting new products and breakthroughs. There are visible reminders of this activity all around, such as the autonomy enabled rides offered by U-M startup company May Mobility in and around Ann Arbor.  Less visible, but still very impactful, are the new medical technologies that are now available because of U-M’s research commercialization activities. Examples include patients’ ability to enroll in a clinical trial at U-M to evaluate the safety and efficacy of histotripsy, a novel technology developed at U-M, in the treatment of liver tumors.  Another example are the patients of Munson Healthcare in Traverse City, Michigan, who were able to access minimally available surgical procedures thanks to a partnership with U-M startup company, FlexDex. 

Increasingly, companies want to be located in vibrant innovation ecosystems, and proximity to U-M students and faculty is helping attract companies to our state.  A recent example includes KLA Corporation, a developer of industry-leading equipment and services for the electronics industry, who selected Michigan for an R&D center that today employs more than 400 people.

How will U-M’s research and innovation enterprise continue redefining how the university addresses the challenges of our communities and fuels transformative change throughout the state? 

As U-M’s research and innovation enterprise continues to evolve, so will we. As the type of innovations and discoveries evolve, we will too in order to ensure that they are being partnered with the right mentors, entrepreneurs, investors and corporate partners. 

We will also continue to build on our legacy of collaboration with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and Ann Arbor SPARK. Much of the success we enjoy today as a leading university for research commercialization is due to being part of a state with visionary leadership that understands the importance of university research commercialization as a key lever in our strategy to grow and diversify Michigan’s economy.

As we look toward the future, one of the things I am most excited about is the ability of our office to make direct venture capital investments into promising U-M startup companies.  Access to early-stage startup capital has been a longstanding gap in our ability to launch, grow and retain successful startup companies here in Michigan. The Accelerate Blue Fund is a $15 million venture capital fund that allows us to make patient, risk-tolerant investments into promising U-M startup companies. By combining translational research funding, business mentorship and now investment capital, we have created an engine to accelerate the commercialization of U-M technologies for the benefit of our state.

There has never been a more exciting time for U-M’s innovation ecosystem thanks to the vision and support of university leaders at the highest level. Vice President for Research Rebecca Cunningham has worked diligently to develop and implement resources, ensuring that our community of innovators have all of the tools they need to amplify the impact of their research and scholarship.  And President Santa J. Ono, a huge proponent of innovation, has made it clear that he wants U-M to be a leader in research commercialization in order to drive economic growth and community wellbeing throughout the state of Michigan.