“The expert is in and ready to talk.” That’s the message that U-M’s educators and researchers want to convey to entrepreneurial students.
Many of our faculty are considered national experts in their fields, with the awards and accolades to prove it. (One example: There are 35 MacArthur Foundation “geniuses” among them.) And, collectively, they manage an annual research budget of $1.39 billion.
That budget funds cutting-edge projects in every conceivable area of study, including art, business, engineering, information, medicine, and more. Signing up to assist with one of these studies is the best way to witness innovation as it occurs and to ensure access to the greatest minds the university has to offer.
“I want all of our students to pursue their own passion-led, self-directed innovation projects.”
Walker McHugh, a biomedical engineering student, took this advice. He worked in the lab of his advisor, Timothy Cornell, MD, on a blood-testing device to help physicians easily monitor the immune responses of cancer patients as they go through immunotherapy. After a year of research, McHugh suggested that the pair try to commercialize the device. With Cornell’s approval, McHugh teamed up with business student Caroline Landau to form a company to do just that. The patent for the device is pending, but McHugh and Landau are sure it will be worth the wait. “We believe that our technology will fundamentally change the way these patients are treated,” they said.
Jeff Zhang, an undergraduate in the School of Information, is also a budding entrepreneur. He’s being mentored not in a lab setting but in an office setting by Nancy Benovich Gilby, the school’s Ehrenberg Director of Entrepreneurship.
Zhang is developing an offline rewards system for online gamers: a subject that is near and dear to his heart. But he admits to having neither a technical nor an entrepreneurial background. So he sought feedback from Benovich Gilby, a serial entrepreneur who has guided eight companies to successful exits.
“I welcome the fact that she rips apart my ideas in a constructive way,” Zhang said. Benovich Gilby responds: “I want all of our students to pursue their own passion-led, self-directed innovation projects.”
Professor David Brophy of the Ross School of Business imparts his wisdom about entrepreneurship in a classic setting: the classroom. But he’s not the only one dispensing advice. He regularly invites local lawyers, venture capitalists, and entrepreneurs to visit his Financing Research Commercialization course. “The students pitch directly to investors and get that valuable hands-on experience,” Brophy said.
Brophy’s course changed the trajectory of Joseph Morrison, Jr.’s career path. He arrived at U-M’s law school with an interest in corporate law, but soon decided to help launch businesses instead. As Morrison witnessed, “Ann Arbor and Detroit have young and vibrant entrepreneurial communities”—and he wants to be a part of it.
Brophy—who founded the Michigan Growth Capital Symposium, the original university-based venture capital gathering—is delighted to hear such feedback. “It’s a pleasure to work with young people and to see them succeed,” he said.
Jay Ellis was a success in his previous career, as an expert in powertrain and vehicle technologies at General Motors. Now he measures success by the number of students he mentors as an instructor at U-M’s TechLab at Mcity, an incubator that matches early-stage technology companies with engineering students eager for real-world experience.
“This incubator [aimed at companies associated with connected and automated vehicle research] lends our students a unique opportunity,” said Ellis. “They’re able to rapidly develop technology, while also advancing proposed solutions for the participating companies. This is a model of applied learning which will be a key driver for innovation for everyone involved.”
UROP Develops Young Researchers All Across Campus
Another way for students to engage with faculty and benefit from their expertise is through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) in the School of Literature, Science, and the Arts. This award-winning program creates research partnerships between first- and second-year students and faculty. All U-M schools and colleges participate, ensuring a wealth of topics from which a student can choose.
Challenging a misperception about the program, Director Sandra Gregerman notes that “UROP is not just for students interested in the sciences. A lot of people think of research and they don’t realize that scholarship and creative work are also part of research and our program. We’re actively recruiting more students in the humanities and social sciences. That’s an area we would love to see grow.”
One such option, the Summer Research Fellowship in Women and Gender Studies, actually solicits research proposals from students and allows them to select their own faculty mentor. For students with a strong entrepreneurial spirit, this kind of option can be very empowering.