If developing, attracting and retaining talent remains key to future economic prosperity, then Michigan’s big three research universities say they’re clearly doing their part, at least on the front end of the equation.
An annual analysis ranks the University Research Corridor — a consortium of Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University — first among eight peer research clusters in the U.S. for talent generation.
The three universities collectively enrolled 155,763 students in 2014, more than any of the seven other research clusters the URC annually benchmarks itself against. The URC schools topped their peers that year by issuing 34,141 undergraduate and graduate degrees, many of them in high-tech and high-demand fields.
For instance, engineering accounted for 39.7 percent of undergraduate degrees issued by URC members in 2014. Biological and medical sciences accounted for another 26.3 percent, according to the URC’s annual analysis conducted by the Anderson Economic Group in East Lansing.
Overall, the three URC schools also “conferred the third-highest number of business degrees, as well as the third-highest number of high-demand degrees” in 2014, the analysis showed.
That activity comes at a time when talent creation is an increasingly important and growing concern for employers and “is the new currency in economic development,” said URC Executive Director Jeff Mason.
“We’re producing both a large volume and also (we have) high-quality students coming out of our institutions,” Mason said. “It’s a competitive arms race when it comes to talent, and companies around the state are certainly competing heavily for that talent.”
The Anderson Economic Group does not look into how many of the URC graduates actually stay in Michigan after college, although Mason cited other reports that suggest the retention rate is growing. A recent story in Bridge magazine, however, indicated that young talent continues to leave Michigan in large numbers.
Mason noted that efforts by colleges, universities, economic developers, and businesses across the state aim to reverse the so-called brain drain. More internships, career-development programs, and companies sponsoring activities on campus can help, Mason said.
Universities are “deeply engaged” in the issue and actively connect students with Michigan-based employers, he added.
“There are a lot of activities going on there and that’s positive in terms of exposing those students to what the opportunities are in this state early on so that they can potentially see their future here,” Mason said. “There are opportunities to come up with new ways to go about that, but I think our institutions and the institutions in general here in Michigan are actively engaged in that kind of outreach to industry and companies here in the state.”
The annual analysis by the Anderson Economic Group examined how well the URC stacks up against research clusters in northern and southern California, Illinois, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Texas.
The Anderson Economic Group pegged the URC’s annual statewide economic impact at $17.5 billion in 2014, up about $700 million from the prior year and up nearly $5 billion from the first annual report in 2007. The three research universities had an estimated $583.3 million in economic impact in a 13-county area in West Michigan that includes Grand Rapids, and $208.8 million in a seven-county region of Southwest Michigan with Kalamazoo.
In an overall composite ranking that uses talent, research spending and technology transfers, the URC ranks second among the eight peer clusters. It sits fifth for research spending, at $2.1 billion in 2014, and seventh for technology transfer.
In individual rankings for tech transfer, the URC was sixth in invention disclosures, fourth in U.S. patents granted, fifth in licenses and options issued for intellectual property, and seventh in licensing revenue at $27.0 million.
The URC also rates last among the eight regions in spinning out startup companies from the research they conduct, with 15 spinoffs in 2014 and an average of 14 annually from 2010 to 2014. Leader southern California averaged 40 spinoffs during the same timeframe and neighboring Illinois averaged 20, according to the report.
While the URC ranks low in some areas compared to its peers, many of the rankings do exceed five-year averages, Mason noted. How the URC compares reflects that the other clusters are more mature in the areas of research, innovation and commercialization, he said.
The commercialization of research innovations is a lagging indicator of the progress to build a far greater “entrepreneurial ecosystem” in Michigan, Mason said. While he’d like to see things move faster, “steady incremental growth and progress is positive in terms of what it means for our state’s future.”
“We’re seeing good progress continue as it relates to the innovation and technology commercialization area,” Mason said. “The commercialization side is moving forward and is pretty strong and continues to accelerate the pace. We’re pointing in the right direction and we have to keep focusing on that area.”