Wolverine Caucus: Leveraging University Innovation to Propel Michigan’s Startup Ecosystem

By Erica Colaianne

A panel of experts joined the Wolverine Caucus on Friday, February 18 for a virtual conversation about the ability of Michigan’s research universities to drive economic growth and diversification, and the University of Michigan’s position as the No. 1 public research university in the nation. 

They discussed Michigan programs including ADVANCE, MTRAC, and T3N, and how they each help move innovation forward and address early startup investment challenges. The panelists also explain how acquiring resources to ensure innovators continue to contribute to our state’s economy is crucial. 

The panelists were: 

Sexton talked about how Innovative Partnerships partners with public universities to bolster a statewide university technology commercialization ecosystem. Innovation Partnerships is a primary gateway for researchers to connect with the private sector to bring technologies to the marketplace and broaden the potential impact of their work. 

“Within our office at Innovation Partnerships, we describe our work as being inspired to redefine how world class university research can both fuel a region and solve the world’s greatest challenges. We want to bring these technologies to the marketplace so that they can go on to become the new therapeutics, the new technologies, the new startup companies that are going to change and improve the world but we also want to do it in ways that bolster the economy of our state and of our region,” Sexton said. “One of the really important ways that we do this and that we contribute to economic growth in the state of Michigan is through the startup companies that we launch.”

Graves spoke about the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s role and key initiatives to help provide funding and assist in transitioning technology from lab to market.

“The Michigan Economic Development Corporation, through our entrepreneurship and innovation initiative, supports programs for high-tech projects and startups through university translation research and service provider support programs, as well as early-staged capital,” Graves said. 

Michigan, and the midwest in general, face capital challenges, according to Psarouthakis, who spoke about the majority of the critical risk capital for startups being located on the coast. 

“This presents several challenges for our startups, especially as they first launch into the marketplace. It is something that we really need to address given the commercialization activity happening at the universities across the state,” he said, adding that Michigan startups are put at a competitive disadvantage. 

Psarouthakis explained that startups are able to raise money more quickly when located in other regions, which allows them to reach milestones and get into the marketplace faster. 

“What that leads to is a loss for our region as companies leave our region for small amounts of capital that they are not able to raise in the state and they move to the coast. So one of the solutions that we have come up with at the University of Michigan is the Accelerate Blue Fund,” he said. The fund is an early-stage venture fund that exclusively invests in UM-licensed startups. 

Robison has direct experience in the startup world and talked about how these partnerships help everyone — the university, the business, and all Michiganders relying on the local ecosystem — achieve goals. When capital is scarce, he said, having support for talent and growth while using minimal funds is integral. 

“We know the University of Michigan is going to win when we are part of a really thriving ecosystem so we spend a lot of time on that and on these collaborations,” Sexton said.

Interested in attending a future Wolverine Caucus program? Visit the Government Relations website to stay informed about upcoming events.