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Network links Michigan universities with innovators

By David Schwartz
Published: November 16th, 2011

When Luke Pinkerton helped to develop steel “toothpicks” nine years ago for use in concrete reinforcement, it seemed he had a long way to go to get them on the market. His research at the University of Michigan was well tested, but who would invest in manufacturing a cheaper rebar replacement that had never been used commercially? “It was difficult to find resources,” Pinkerton recalls. “Everyone thinks you’re nuts.”

With help from several agencies, Pinkerton obtained loans from Michigan’s 21st Century Jobs Fund. Now his Polytorx, based in Ann Arbor, sells the Helix reinforcement in 30 countries and employs nearly 40 workers, with manufacturing in Grand Rapids. Sales have increased every month since June, and 2011 sales are expected to double those of last year. Pinkerton also has paid back the loans.

The 21st Century Jobs Fund and several other state resources recently got a $6.8 million boost from the state to not only fund new business ventures like Pinkerton’s but also to streamline connections between universities and the private sector. The goal is to connect entrepreneurs and other business experts quickly with the state’s 15 public universities.

Kevin McCurren, executive director of Grand Valley State University’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, says $2.43 million earmarked for a Tech Transfer Talent Network will move research results from universities into commercial viability faster. The money will go toward creating a database of experts, various fellows programs, consultants, and a mentor-in-residence program that embeds entrepreneurs in university tech transfer operations. “This is an investment in the state of Michigan,” McCurren says. “It’s an investment to help get the technology out from the universities.”


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