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Matching Up Local Businesses
With U-M's Faculty & Students
By Mark Ziemba
in his office at the Business Engagement Center.
In the midst of Michigan's difficult economic climate, the University of Michigan sees an opportunity to encourage economic growth here, and it has created the Business Engagement Center to act as an agent for that change.
The Business Engagement Center opened the doors of its 1214 South University Avenue offices in May of 2008 with a mission to serve as a liaison between the university's huge faculty and student resources and the local business community. It's staffed by seven people, four of whom are known as relationship managers.
"We're kind of a dating service," says BEC Interim Executive Director Daryl Weinert, who is also the senior director for corporate and government relations for the College of Engineering. "These are busy people."
"We represent the huge capabilities that UM does have," says Weinert. "We have a dedicated staff here to help you navigate this big place and find your value."
It can be difficult to navigate UM's vast resources from within as well as without.
"Faculty don't have time to seek out those opportunities; they're too busy doing what makes them great," Weinert says. "Companies often don't have time to make their way through this confusing, huge, basically Fortune 500-sized academic institution."
Matching Business and Academia
Both the university and industry have a great deal to offer each other in the relationship.
The university has a vast pool of talent available to be tapped by industry.
Industry is easily attracted to recruiting from the valuable resource of the university's highly trained students.
"We're a source of incredible talent," Weinert says.
The faculty are another significant draw for industry.
"There are brilliant people here at the tops of their fields," says Weinert. "Some really interesting and exciting research can be done that's valuable for both us and industry."
It's not just about having brilliant faculty, though, it's also about having a critical mass of them. UM Provost Teresa Sullivan spoke in May to visiting Chinese education officials about how the university's academic freedom and critical mass of faculty can create opportunities for intellectual advancement. Industry is attracted to UM because of that critical mass.
"They're going to be attracted to us for those clusters of demonstrated excellence," says Weinert.
As a place of learning, the university has an important role to play in keeping business professionals up to speed in our very fast-changing times, as well.
"People need to plug back into learning and companies can use the university as a resource for professional development for their employees," Weinert says. "We are good at teaching people."
The university also partners with industry to license the technology it develops on campus.
"University of Michigan is not a for-profit venture," explains Weinert. "The technologies that are developed here by our faculty and our graduate students....We can't really commercialize those; we need partners to go and do that."
Industry shares its expertise with the university community, too, in educational and advisory roles.
"People from industry come and speak on campus, are part of the intellectual exchange," says Weinert.
Companies are also part of the student learning process, as classes increasingly involve students in hands-on experience.
Evolution of the BEC
At the heart of this approach is an effort to interact with industry in a more reciprocal way. Weinert spearheaded the implementation of this idea over the past eight years as part of the College of Engineering's corporate relations efforts, which served as the model for the BEC.
Weinert arrived at UM in 1999 from the business world, so he was familiar with the needs of industry. He had previously served as the director of procurement strategy for Chicago risk-management, insurance and consulting firm Aon Corporation and as the vice president of commercial banking with Bank One (now Chase).
Traditionally, Weinert says, most universities approach business simply as a source of fund-raising. Weinert knew that it was important for academia to create value for industry, as well.
"Why are we leading with tin cup in hand?" Weinert says that he asked. "It never sat well with me, having come from industry."
Of course, gifts to the university are still important, but "looking beyond just gifts is the enlightened approach," he says.
"In engineering we really evolved to a different approach to corporate relations," he says. "That approach is really more all-inclusive."
Weinert is also a UM alumnus, with undergraduate degrees in engineering and economics, so he recognizes the value of the university.
The genesis of the BEC was the result of the efforts of the Advancing Innovation Committee, tasked by Vice President for Research Stephen R. Forrest to improve the university's interaction with industry and help foster economic development. That committee looked at the College of Engineering's successful model and recommended establishing an office to coordinate a university-wide effort.
The BEC is one of only four such comprehensive university initiatives in the country. Others include Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Industrial Liaison Program, the University of Wisconsin's Office of Corporate Relations and the University of Minnesota's Academic and Corporate Relations Center.
Making a Difference in Michigan's Economy
As part of its charter, the BEC is "to be a force for economic development for the state and the region," says Weinert.
Certainly the university already interacts extensively with larger companies, which can help generate growth for the area.
"Pick a Fortune 500 company and we are probably interacting with them on some level," Weinert says.
Such companies are generally well served by the university, however, as "they tend to have established a mechanism for interacting with academia," says Weinert.
The BEC is actively working to establish such mechanisms for smaller businesses, too, which will have a direct impact on the local economy.
Weinert says that this "translates hugely into economic development, because the small businesses that we are going to be interacting with, 90 percent of them are located nearby."
The BEC is also working closely with Ann Arbor SPARK, which helps develop local innovation-based business, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and local chambers of commerce.
In March the BEC helped offer Entrepreneurial Opportunities Day, a technology-focused career fair on North Campus to connect small companies with UM faculty and students. Over 100 small companies and organizations attended.
"Despite the bad news you hear in the state, there are some amazing small technology companies growing and dynamic right here in our back yard," says Weinert.
Faculty panels presented research work in areas of alternative energy, automotive technology, information technology, medical devices, optics and aerospace.
"We wanted to expose faculty to the existence of these small companies and expose both sides to the technologies they were working on and see if there were potential partnerships," Weinert says.
The event also offered an entrepreneurial resource center for free advice and counsel from law firms, accounting agencies, venture capital organizations, chambers of commerce, Ann Arbor SPARK and the UM's Office of Technology Transfer.
The event was so successful that the BEC is already planning the next one in February of 2009.
What kind of small businesses will directly benefit from the BEC?
"Generally the kind of small companies that are going to be best for us to connect with are going to have some technology or educational bent to them," says Weinert.
Despite that focus, small companies of all kinds may certainly find value in interacting with students through student projects or in recruiting them for jobs.
Such projects allow students to gain valuable hands-on experience while devising solutions for companies at minimal expense.
"It's very low-cost for the company," says Weinert. "Generally all we ask of the company is to cover expenses that the team might have. They don't have to pay the students salary of any kind, because it's for academic experience."
He adds, "Students love it because they can really see the impact of what they do at the company."
For recruiting, the BEC can help small companies compete with much bigger companies for top talent.
Weinert envisions small businesses asking a question such as, "How do I go compete with a GM or an Intel or an Apple Computer?"
He adds, "We're trying to figure out mechanisms where small companies can stand out and make a connection to students, and we can keep the talent in the state of Michigan."
Keeping talent in Michigan will help turn the economy around because it will mean more business and more jobs.
Weinert emphasizes the importance of small businesses to job creation. "Any data you see nationally shows small companies are actually the leading creator of new jobs," he says. "We need more of that small company entrepreneurial spirit in this state."
The BEC can help maintain and attract new business of all kinds.
"Things like the Business Engagement Center can make a big difference in industry's perception of how it is to do business in the state of Michigan," says Weinert.
Partnering with UM's Office of Technology Transfer
The Business Engagement Center is located jointly with UM's Office of Technology Transfer, and the two organizations have a synergistic relationship.
The OTT helps get university-developed technology licensed to existing companies, or helps create new ones to make use of it.
"Technology Transfer is about forming relationships with faculty who have interesting technologies that they want to bring to market," says Weinert.
The BEC interacts with large numbers of companies every year. Weinert estimates that it will host over 200 corporate visits in the current academic fiscal year. "All of those companies are potential licensees for University technology," he says.
Reciprocally, once new spin-off companies are licensed by OTT, the BEC can pick up the relationship. "Hopefully we continue to work with that company, give them a conduit into the resources of the University of Michigan to help make them successful," says Weinert.
Both organizations overlap in their goals, so it's a good fit.
"Both Technology Transfer and the Business Engagement Center have as part of their charter to promote the region and help companies in the region grow," says Weinert. "Now that we're together, we can actually more efficiently cover those relationships."
Michigan's Economic Outlook
Weinert sees Michigan's economic future as bright in the long run, but not without its immediate difficulties.
"The auto industry is going to remain a very important part of who we are and what we do, but it's shifting into more of an R&D center," says Weinert, "and less of a manufacturing center."
"That's causing huge economic dislocation," he says. "Suddenly there are a lot of good jobs that are no longer here in the state."
"In Michigan we need to diversify our economy, which I see starting to happen," he says.
To accomplish this change will require the efforts of universities, government, business and the public.
"It's critical that the universities in the state and everyone in the state create a conducive climate for economic growth," he says.
"We can't solve it alone, but we can certainly play our part," says Weinert. "The university is playing more of a role than it has for a long time in economic development for the state."
Weinert emphasizes the importance of industry to academia.
"Industry by far takes the highest percentage of our students. If you want to look at it in these terms, they're a huge customer of the universities," he says.
With the Business Engagement Center, UM is helping create the kind of change that fosters economic growth and allows Michigan to return to economic stability.
Weinert, who grew up and went to school in Michigan, is personally invested in Michigan's success. "I care a lot about Michigan."
For more information about UM's Business Engagement Center, visit http://www.bec.umich.edu on the Web or call (734) 647-1000.