The Union of Town and Gown

Michigan State University and East Lansing, Mich.


Michigan State University and East Lansing, Mich.
City population:
46,525
MSU student population: 46,648
University employees: 11,218
Metro area small businesses: 7,735
Nearest major airport: Detroit Metro (90 miles)

In economically hard-hit Michigan, there's at least one thing going right: Michigan State University is pulling no punches in an effort to create and incubate new local business ventures. The MSU Product Center for Agricultural and Natural Resources is commercializing new food manufacturers. The Lansing Area Economic Partnership is working with MSU-bred startups to find resources to keep them in the community. The Prima Civitas Foundation, partly funded by MSU, is working to bring biotech and alternative energy projects to central Michigan. MSU Technologies is a tech transfer office on steroids and--along with MSU Business Connect, which links businesses with local resources--is the anchor tenant in East Lansing's new Technology Innovation Center. "The synergy between these initiatives is helping to improve the culture of innovation in the community," says Tim Dempsey, director of planning and community development for East Lansing. This is a community doing everything possible to jumpstart a new entrepreneurial vision for itself, and the university is its key power source.

Gained in Translation
There are technology transfer offices in most universities, but many are understaffed and have a difficult time dealing with the flood of patent applications they need to file. Thinking deeply about how to commercialize research gets pushed off to the side. But MSU Technologies, a ramped-up tech transfer concept, is trying to change the way science makes it to the marketplace. "We have to sell the faculty on working with us. They're out there teaching and researching, and we have to present commercialization in a way that matters to them," says Michael Poterala, director of MSU Technologies. "We also have to develop trusting relationships with licensees and companies." The group's 17 employees comb through university research, assessing ideas for commercial viability. If a concept has legs, they work with researchers to start moving it into the manufacturing or startup phase, working with local and regional development agencies to try and keep the startups in Michigan. So far, it's paying dividends, with several high-tech spinoffs setting up offices in the region. "We were the first of the land grant institutions, which have a mission of benefitting the public," Poterala says. "That's a mission that we and most people at MSU take seriously."

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Jason Daley lives and writes in Madison, Wisconsin. His work regularly appears in Popular Science, Outside and other magazines.

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This article was originally published in the October 2009 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: The Union of Town and Gown.

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