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Pooled mentors-in-residence assist U Michigan’s “sister” universities statewide

By Jesse Schwartz
Published: April 12th, 2017

Universities challenged by a lack of resources (and who isn’t these days?) have often found that collaboration can be an effective way to expand their commercialization efforts. But while such collaborations are not unusual, a network of universities in Michigan has moved into an area that appears to be unique: pooled Mentors-in-Residence (MiRs).

The program was the brainchild of Kenneth Nisbet, associate vice president for technology transfer at the University of Michigan, and is in fact a subset of a broader effort known as the the Tech Transfer Talent Network (T3N), launched in 2012. It was his goal, he recalls, to “transfer the success we’ve had at Michigan to others.”

It began with discussions between Nisbet and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), which he says provides “generous funding” to these efforts and others. “They asked me for some recommendations, and I suggested that rather than some centralized tech transfer capabilities, the talent programs led by us could be shared — but they had to be tailored,” says Nisbet. “I said that if they were willing to provide funding to offset our extra work and provide incentives, I’d submit a grant.”

Aided by matching funds from the MEDC, the T3N was created. In addition to Michigan, it includes Grand Valley State University, Michigan State University, Michigan Technological University, Oakland University, Wayne State University and Western Michigan University. T3N’s programs include:

  • Mentors-In-Residence.
  • Fellows — graduate students working part-time in licensing.
  • University Post-Doc Fellowships — start-up development, licensing, potential employment.
  • Catalyst Talent Resources — advisors, consultants and potential start-up management

Nisbet made the MiRs half-time positions. “I wanted them here regularly because our people expect it, so others could learn from you, so inventors could count on you,” he explains. They were usually retained for about 18 months, at 20 hours a week. “This way they could do something else,” Nisbet continues. “They are usually financially secure but they might want to teach, or consult, so half-time seemed to be the sweet spot.”

The mentors work with inventors and the TTO staff, as well as on the outside. “They are really a great resource for the assessment of a new idea,” says Nisbet. “Licensing people have a pretty good sense, but these mentors have other contacts to use for advice and connections.” Most of their work, he observes, relates to the start-up side — initial modeling; assessment; sometimes interim management; counseling and advice on the university side and the business side; introductions to VCs; accessing funds; and attracting talent.

The other schools involved in T3N, Nisbet says, have also tried to develop their own mentors, “but they have sometimes found that people like ours do not exist in other regions,” he observes. This is where the MiR pool comes in. “Funding and talent are critical to the process of commercializing inventions, but funding without talent is not as effective,” says Nisbet. The pools enable sharing that talent.

“We have had a pool of three people shared by the schools and managed centrally,” he explains, adding that a fourth slot has just opened up for four of the schools. The amount of time they spend at a school depends on the workload. “If there is a specific project there, they may go there a few times a month,” says Nisbet. The pool, he adds, “is like a SWAT team that can either combine their experiences or do something directly, and can even provide leads for talent.”

A detailed article on the pooled MiR program appears in the March issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. To subscribe and get the full article, plus access the publication’s rich 10-year archive filled with hundreds of best practices and success strategies for TTOs, CLICK HERE.

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