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Tuesday, 04 September 2012 11:01

MCRN programs to help bridge the university research gap

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Mason Mason
MICHIGAN — A new state program wants to make it easier for businesses to tap into the brainpower and resources at the state’s research universities.

After a $1.8 million grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corp., the Michigan Corporate Relations Network is ramping up its effort to help in-state technology and research-based companies. The network has started reaching out to primarily small and mid-sized research and development-focused companies that need help accessing research or that could benefit from other university-level resources.

MCRN launched in 2011 with six Michigan public universities: University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Michigan State University, Wayne State University, Michigan Technological University, Western Michigan University and the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Each member university maintains an office that connects businesses to university resources and to faculty who can assist research needs.

“For companies that are looking to innovate and find ways to answer tough tech questions they are struggling to answer, the universities that are a part of this network offer faculty, equipment and wealth of untapped information to help solve problems,” said Jeff Mason, executive director for the University Research Corridor, part of the oversight group for MCRN.

The six schools represent a broad research and geographic footprint across the state. According to MCRN, the universities represent more than $1.8 billion in research funding — or about 98 percent of the academic research done in Michigan in 2009 — and 99 percent of all university patent activity, and more than 160,000 students spread across the state.

MCRN is helping start ups such as DeNovo Sciences, a life sciences development company focusing on technologies for cancer research, to partner with a university to cost-share in research and development.

Through the Small Company Innovation Program (SCIP), DeNovo received $27,250 to support research at Wayne State University for the development of a technology that could provide a less-invasive alternative to biopsies.

The network created SCIP to help small Michigan companies attack technological and commercialization issues by providing them access to top research university resources and talent that they otherwise would not be able to afford.

Another company involved in the network, PicoCal Inc., received $40,000 in SCIP funds to support research at the University of Michigan. The company develops micro-machined sensors and actuators for semiconductor, nanotechnology and other applications. The research will go to improve the manufacturing process of nano materials and nano devices.

While many larger companies have dedicated research and development budgets, some of which have established university connections, MCRN’s stated goal is to target small to medium-sized companies that may not have capital to access advanced academic resources.

This kind of activity fits into the economic gardening movement in the state, said Mason. The point is to extend and grow the connection with small and medium-sized businesses to the wealth of knowledge in the state’s research institutions, he added.
“The universities are a one-stop shop that can help Michigan companies be successful,” Mason said.

Research and development can be a huge and risky financial burden for technology and IP startups, said Lorelei Davis, MCRN affiliate and associate director of Michigan State University’s Business Connect.

“We are in this for investment in the long term and good partnerships overtime,” she said. “Spending money on university research can be a scary and big investment if you’ve never done it before. We want to take the confusion out by having companies get to know our offices. We can help take out the risk by cost sharing.”

Ideally, partnering a company and a university starts with identifying the university that is the best fit and has the capabilities to match the company’s needs. Second is having a relatively close geographical match.

“This is a great way to get your toe in the water,” Davis said. “It’s not like a big, giant federal grant where you put everything together, cross your fingers and hope it all works out.”

If companies are interested in finding out what they need to apply, Davis said it’s important that companies contact one of the university offices early to get help with the process.

The network returned some early applications because companies didn’t understand that the funding went to the university, not the applicant, Davis said.

In July, the Michigan Corporate Relations Network also launched the Instant Innovation program. The effort is aimed at companies with a specific project or technical concern, such as a materials or process issue.

The program is a 50-50 cost share that brings a university team together with a company in a facilitated daylong brainstorming session.

MCRN also provides a Small Company Internship Award. The award provides funding so companies can hire university students as interns to assist on projects. The award is focused on Michigan businesses working in the science, technology, engineering and math fields.

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