After 25 years with other institutions, Tom Lyons is returning to Michigan State University, where he first began his tenured career, to lead the Michigan State University Product Center. The Product Center provides coaching and mentoring services to entrepreneurs in the food processing and agribusiness sectors. Fresh into his new role, Lyons spoke with MiBiz about his long-term plans for the organization, which includes greater integration of services for entrepreneurs and expanding the capability of MSU Extension’s innovation counselors.
Even though you’ve only been on the job a short time, what is your long-term vision for the Product Center?
I think the Product Center has a lot of potential. … We have an innovation development group that focuses on working with stage zero and stage one entrepreneurs. A lot of it (is done) out in the field by the MSU Extension innovation counselors. We have a really strong base there and an opportunity because we have some vacancies. … That’s a good opportunity to look at how we can come back in and leverage our strengths and further professionalize the counseling that goes on out there and add some more value to our client entrepreneurs.
Do you work with more mature entrepreneurs?
We do work with stage two entrepreneurs. Right now, that’s mostly counseling and coaching. We have an exciting opportunity coming up here that we’re working through now. We have planned what we call the Food Processing Innovation Center. That facility is geared toward entrepreneurs in the food processing industry.
How does it work?
What it is, is essentially a place where they can test out new product lines, from setting up the line to packaging to storage and even some help with marketing of their new product line. Really (it’s) for companies that are in the growth stage and want to scale things up. We also have a robust research component. … Then bringing this all together so we have some synergy within the center is another goal I’d like to achieve while I’m here. There’s lots of exciting opportunities.
What do you mean by ‘bringing this together?’ More integration of these three entities?
Right, really helping to bring the research component together to better serve the innovation development component and build more of a pipeline. We’re working with stage zero and stage one entrepreneurs and we’re trying to ramp up stage two, which takes us to a place where we could begin spinning off some fairly good size, robust companies that are truly in a high growth stage.
Does the Product Center plan to invest in these companies as they grow?
We haven’t gotten into that yet because really, up to this point, none of our entrepreneurs were really ready for equity investment. As we expand our stage two offerings, we could get to that point. So that would be another possibility for us, but we aren’t doing that right now. When I said spinning off, what I meant was that we help these folks grow their businesses then go off on their own to get bigger, or to start working with large corporations in the industry.
What are some immediate strategies that will help you reach those longer-term goals?
That’s tough to say because … mostly what I’m doing now is learning. I’m going around and talking individually to my staff and finding out what our strengths are and learning where we need to be paying more attention to things that aren’t working as well as they might. … I expect four to six weeks in we’ll be doing some new things on the way to some of these bigger goals.
What’s the market opportunity for food entrepreneurs in Michigan?
Right now in food processing, I think there are tremendous opportunities for growth. Food has become much more sexy than it was for a while with all the focus on farm to plate, organic and people wanting to know the origins of their food. I think there are some real opportunities for food companies to leverage some of that and leverage it for growth.
What barriers are companies in the food sector facing at the moment?
I’m seeing more opportunity than I am barriers right now. If I had to point to a particular barrier, it’s in the food safety arena and that’s not just a government problem but a problem for the private companies there too. Sorting that out is going to be one of the big challenges going forward.