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Special Feature: Strengthening the Innovation Ecosystem

Mary Sue Coleman

Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan and co-chair of the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

A remarkably productive ecosystem for innovation has flourished through the relationships among academia, government, industry, and the entrepreneurial community. According to Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan and co-chair of the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship, we must continue to invest in this ecosystem, to encourage innovation and thereby ensure that the U.S. economy thrives.

by Mary Sue Coleman

Our nation’s universities are central to our economic health and vitality. Through both education and research, they are a vital source of people and ideas that spark the development of new products, new processes, new companies, and entirely new industries.

Despite their profound impact, universities’ role in innovation was not planned. Instead, it evolved over the last several decades, shaped largely by federal support of basic research, the spirit of inquiry on our nation’s campuses, and the entrepreneurial culture of our society. What has emerged is a remarkably productive “ecosystem” for innovation that has flourished through the relationships among academia, government, industry, and the entrepreneurial community.

But in today’s increasingly competitive marketplace, universities and their partners must become more intentional in harnessing the potential of this ecosystem. And indeed, a wide range of new activities and programs are springing up to do just that.

In 1980, the Bayh-Dole Act gave universities ownership of intellectual property developed on campus under federal research funding. This policy greatly accelerated the transfer of new technologies to the marketplace through licensing to existing companies and to start-ups.

A major focus today is to boost the frequency and success rate of university spinoffs, which are willing to take the risk of bringing novel technologies to the marketplace. More and more universities are developing incentives to encourage faculty entrepreneurship and to support new ventures. At the University of Michigan (U-M), the Office of Technology Transfer created a Venture Center, a one-stop center for faculty and venture partners to access technology, expertise, and resources to create new ventures based on U-M technology. The Center includes a business accelerator that provides space and resources to help emerging start-ups through the critical early growth stage.

As important as university startups are, the great majority of new companies are launched by students after they have graduated and gained experience in the workplace. Many universities are therefore creating a variety of programs to better prepare students to be entrepreneurs. On our campus alone, a host of courses, degree programs, competitions, mentoring and networking opportunities, and even a student business accelerator, have sprung up to meet the need, and the growing demands from the students themselves.

Encouraging greater cooperation between academia and industry is critical. By connecting to university resources and programs, companies can not only boost their own growth and productivity, but also strengthen teaching and research on campus. To encourage these ties, six of Michigan’s 15 public universitiesrepresenting nearly 98 percent of the academic research done in the staterecently came together to form the Michigan Corporate Relations Network.

U-M’s arm of this network, the Business Engagement Center, was formed four years ago. Today, it maintains relationships with more than 1,000 companies, and nearly 200 new companies contact it each year, showing the corporate community’s clear interest in building stronger ties to academia.

Universities are also stepping up their engagement in local and regional economic development, highlighting the value their educational and research programs bring to the process. In Michigan, the state’s three leading research universitiesMichigan State University, Wayne State University, and the University of Michiganformed an alliance in 2006 expressly aimed at helping to revitalize the state’s economy through collaboration, events, and outreach.

At the federal level, new initiatives are emerging that tap the potential of the innovation ecosystem to help address major economic challenges. For example, the Advanced Manufacturing Program, announced last June, targets the manufacturing sectorthe heart of a vibrant economy. It will provide more than $500 million to bring together industry, academia, and government to speed the development and implementation of new technologies and approaches to help our nation’s manufacturers innovate and compete.

All of these developments show a growing awareness of both the complexity and the power of the innovation ecosystemone of our nation’s greatest resources. By continuing to invest in this system, and by finding new ways to coordinate and focus its activities, we can encourage innovation to flourish, and help our economy to thrive.

Mary Sue Coleman has led the University of Michigan since being appointed its 13th president in August 2002. President Obama selected her as one of six university presidents to help launch the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership, a national effort bringing together industry, universities, and the federal government. And in 2010, then-Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke named her co-chair of the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship.