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Denise Graves, Director of University Relations at Michigan Economic Development Corp. Denise Graves, Director of University Relations at Michigan Economic Development Corp. Courtesy Photo

Q&A: Denise Graves, Director of University Relations at Michigan Economic Development Corp.

BY Sunday, April 30, 2017 03:52pm

As Michigan continues its attempts to foster and grow a high-technology sector, the state’s economic development organization has started to assess what it can do to help. To that end, the Michigan Strategic Fund (MSF) last month approved a new $1 million Early Stage Proof of Concept Fund aimed at commercializing technology at the state’s research institutions. Denise Graves, director of university relations at the MEDC, spoke with MiBiz regarding the new fund and where it fits in the broader Michigan Translational Research and Commercialization (MTRAC) program, which aims to accelerate the biomedical, life sciences, advanced transportation, advanced materials and agricultural biotech industries.

How did MTRAC come about?

In 2012, MTRAC got its start with about $6.5 million in funding from the MSF. It was a nod to looking at university research and getting it to the commercial market by way of matching up with mentors and commercial milestones. So MTRAC got its start with the funding and it was at four universities and five disciplinary focuses. 

How was that split up?

It was biomedical at Wayne State, it was life sciences at U of M, advanced transportation (also) at U of M, advanced materials at Michigan Tech and ag bio at Michigan State. A year ago, because of the traction MTRAC got and the interest and some of the outcomes, we went to the MSF to request it to be a statewide program.

What are next steps?

The next step … is the Tech Transfer Talent Network. That’s funding that supports mentors in residence and post-doctorates inside the university that may want to spin out into the startup or stay in the lab and continue working on a technology to spin it out into a startup or a license. So mentors-in-residence and post-docs are a very important piece to the puzzle in that the post-docs are working on the technology in the lab. 

Why’s that?

The mentors bring the business expertise and are mentoring the projects and the faculty members to get things into commercialization. (They’re) doing the business plan, making introductions to people in their Rolodex. They typically have a strong commercial background. They’re a very key role in this ecosystem, if you will.

What have you seen since MTRAC became a statewide program?

The statewide program now allows in any institute of higher learning — because MTRAC was only at four universities. Any institute of higher education can apply into the program. They’re typically public just by virtue of the matching funds. So the MSF has approved four innovation hubs. 

What do the innovation hubs do?

What it means to be an innovation hub is that they’re going to run that disciplinary focus for the state of Michigan. Currently, we have four. As an innovation hub, they’ll receive proposals from any institute of higher education, any hospital system and any research center in the state for commercializing some technology. It’s a one-to-one match, so any institution that puts a proposal into an RFP process and applies for funding, they need to bring a match. Currently, the MTRAC program is kind of hitting its stride and becoming more and more successful as we go through the process.

What metrics are you using to measure that success?

As of January, there have been 307 proposals reviewed. What that means, there’s an oversight committee that’s part of each innovation hub. The committee is key to the success of the MTRAC program in that it’s made up of industry professionals, venture capital professionals as well as university representatives from tech transfer. I sit on all of the oversight committees as well. There’s mentors-in-residence. There’s a whole group of people that are reviewing proposals, scoring them and then they’re the ones that will approve a proposal for funding.

What’s happened since the statewide rollout? 

There have been 307 proposals reviewed to date for the MTRAC program and 115 projects have been funded. There have been 18 startups, 58 jobs created, 11 licenses to industry, 18 options to industry and over $40 million in follow-on funding.

Do those numbers meet the goals of the MEDC?

We’re definitely meeting our milestones, especially since this is such an early stage. My colleagues at the MEDC who work in business development or attraction, they’re working with major corporations that are bringing in hundreds of jobs. This work is very important to the state as well because it’s filling the top of the funnel and giving us the opportunity to get startups going and get products out to market.

What have you seen on the dollar side of things? 

The follow-on funding alone (has been) over $40 million. That comes anywhere from federal (funds), SBIR, bank loans, sales of products. … But if you talk about (the nearly $12 million invested) into the program, if you add that up and compare it to the follow-on funding alone, that’s a huge ROI, especially at this early stage in the pipeline.

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