Recently launched Innovation Partnerships is positioned to amplify the impact of U-M innovators through a broadened scope of commercialization and partnership opportunities, and a team that brings a wealth of cumulative experience, connections and versatility.
Alongside its new name, Innovation Partnerships created a Corporate Research Alliances unit to enhance support for faculty exploring research collaborations with industry partners. The Alliances team joins the existing Licensing and Ventures units that together will help U-M innovations create internal and external value through corporate sponsored research collaborations, licensing discussions, or connections with business mentors, entrepreneurs, and investors to support startup company formation.
U-M has had a long-standing commitment to foster innovation through technology commercialization, with its patent history dating back to the early 20th century and a dedicated technology transfer office founded in 1989. Under its now modernized structure, Innovation Partnerships is positioned to serve as a hub through which faculty innovators can amplify the impact of their research by engagement with the private sector.
“We have been offering comprehensive step-by-step service to entrepreneurial faculty starting with invention assessment and intellectual property support, followed by business mentoring and connections to early-stage capital from the Accelerate Blue Fund. The name Innovation Partnerships was selected to declare our team’s commitment to provide even more enhanced faculty support as their trusted partner throughout their innovation journey,” said Kelly Sexton, associate vice president for research and innovation partnerships.
The successful relationships between Innovation Partnerships and U-M innovators have created meaningful partnerships, products and companies, and helped nurture the innovator and the idea while promoting the entrepreneurial spirit across campus. Innovation Partnerships Mentor-in-Residence Karen Studer-Rabeler, who from 2000-2007, managed an early incarnation of the Ventures team, explained “As the faculty started to understand what could be possible with their innovations, I heard more of them use the word ‘impactful’. It was not about the money or a career change, it was ‘I want to have my technology used and bring value to people’.”
To continue nurturing the innovative spirit among faculty, Innovation Partnerships is an open door through which faculty can access an Alliances team with expertise in establishing and managing corporate research collaborations; a Licensing team not afraid to pursue innovative deal structures and manage historically less traditional innovations like software and data; and a Ventures team that connects faculty with translational research funding, entrepreneurs, angel investors and venture capital.
Innovation Partnerships’ newest team, the Corporate Research Alliances group, is a resource to support faculty in their efforts to connect with corporate sponsored research recognizing that research partnerships with industry can be the right positioning for many projects to flourish.
“The creation of the Corporate Research Alliances team reinforces our team’s mission to provide enhanced services to help faculty create new research collaborations with industry, allowing us to leverage our existing relationships with industry, investors and entrepreneurs to positively impact society and drive economic growth,” said Sexton.
Alliances works with faculty to establish and maintain research partnerships, spanning individual, faculty-led projects to large multi-faculty master agreements. The team expertly navigates the many important aspects needed to optimize research outcomes, including managing background intellectual property and identifying and managing big- and small-picture alignment issues between partners.
Director of Corporate Research Alliances Chris Fick emphasized that faculty can access the unit’s expertise early in the ideation process, before faculty have approached a potential research sponsor.
The Licensing team provides services to U-M innovators relating to invention disclosures, managing intellectual property, and identifying potential partners, licensees, markets, or other avenues to support further development of an invention.
Innovation Partnerships has embraced innovative deal structures and approaches to licensee relationships. “We’re not looking at licenses independently. We’re looking at relationships with licensees, acquirers, and investors. There are investors that will support multiple startups and so taking a long-term approach to build a relationship with them is beneficial,” said Bryce Pilz, Executive Director of Licensing and Strategic Alliances.
Pilz also pointed to the team’s drive to pursue novel deal structures for inventions where more traditional deals could limit impact. “For most software startups, we will grant equity-only licenses which we think is the best model for aligning the interest of the startup, the university and the investor. We’re the first university to do this. We’ve received a lot of positive feedback from it. It’s allowed deals to go forward that would not have with more traditional deal structures,” said Pilz. He added this model will help create great relationships with entrepreneurs and investors and will result in a broad portfolio of U-M startups.
The Ventures team supports the launch of new companies based on U-M technologies and research. A suite of resources ranging from translational research funding such as the MTRAC for Life Sciences and Advanced Transportation Hubs, to incubator space in the Innovation Partnerships Startup Incubator, to connections with entrepreneurs and investors, enable the Ventures team to help launch sustainable, venture-ready startups.
The Ventures team’s commitment to providing faculty entrepreneurs with the resources needed to create value can be seen in the setup of the Accelerate Blue Fund and its Investment Advisory Board (IAB). Accelerate Blue Fund (ABF) is an early-stage investment fund that exclusively invests in U-M startups. ABF has raised over $3 million to date and invested in two startups: clock distribution network newco Movellus and cloud-based 3D printing company Ulendo.
“Most investment advisory boards are made up of investors,” but that’s not the case for ABF, said Mike Psarouthakis, Director of Ventures and Managing Director of the fund. While two of ABF’s IAB members are investors – Chris Rizik of Renaissance Venture Partners and Adrian Ohmer of The Kresge Foundation – everyone else is an entrepreneur, founder, or the like, creating a board with diverse experience along the startup spectrum. “That breadth of opinion will be a competitive advantage for us in assessing investment opportunities. It’s been shown time and again that diversity is a valuable asset when you’re seeking advice.”
Innovation Partnerships: Connecting the Dots
Alliances, Licensing and Ventures operate as a cohesive unit and in doing so, expand the depth of support and connections Innovation Partnerships can offer to faculty.
That cohesiveness can be seen in the strengthened collaboration between Licensing and Ventures teams, which previously functioned as separate units when the venture center was created in 2009, Psarouthakis explained. “Now the alignment between teams is much stronger and the groups approach each technology as a joint project they work on together from start to finish,” he said.
For example, a Mentor-in-Residence from the Ventures team is formally assigned to inventions that have potential to be startups, but can get exposure to all inventions through invention review meetings open to both teams. That connection enables Ventures to proactively work with Licensing before an invention reaches an inflection point like needing gap funds or company formation.
Having visibility of projects early is a huge benefit to faculty. “We are also a resource for other partnerships,” explained Studer-Rabeler, adding the diverse Ventures team members have much breadth and depth of experience that yields a large set of people and resources across the spectrum from idea to product development with whom they can connect to faculty.
The Corporate Research Alliances team further expands the opportunities through which partnerships can be made. For example, many corporate research sponsors are also interested in becoming involved with U-M startups, Fick said.
The Future of Innovation Partnerships
In the spirit of broadening the collaboration across campus, Innovation Partnerships new name was conceived through numerous feedback and ideation sessions with faculty, campus stakeholders, University leaders as well as community organizations and industry partners. To fulfill its mission, Innovation Partnerships has grown to more than 50 team members that are singularly focused on providing world-class inventor-centric service across the U-M ecosystem. Look for more exciting developments through 2022 and beyond as the Innovation Partnerships team continues to ensure that every U-M research discovery has a chance to change the world.