The University’s Medical School produced the most inventions and startups in its history over the last fiscal year, the school announced last Monday.

Due to the continued efforts of the Office of Tech Transfer and new programs designed to help researchers introduce their discoveries to the market, the Medical School broke many of its previous tech transfer records including patents filed, startups produced, license agreements with industry and revenues. Especially lucrative was the partial sale of the University-developed drug Cerdelga’s licensing rights, which earned the University $65.6 million.

Medical School Dean James Woolliscroft said the rise in commercialization represents the school’s understanding that research should be directly applied to society whenever possible.

“Over a period of time, it’s really become understood that part of our mission is not only to pursue knowledge for knowledge’s sake or understanding’s sake, but to use it and apply it to improve the human condition,” he said.

The University’s Office of Tech Transfer is responsible for commercializing research discoveries from all three University campuses. A recent press release announced a bevy of tech transfer improvements since last year. The Medical School produced 166 new invention reports compared to 133 from the previous year, 51 patent applications compared to 45, 10 new startups as opposed to one and $74.8 million in total revenue.

Ken Nisbet, the Office of Technology Transfer’s associate vice president for research, said the new Fast Forward Medical Innovation program helped drive the commercialization increases.

“The results are a function of several things,” Nisbet said. “I would say that FFMI, in particular, is a real influencer in the number of ideas that reach us.”

A team of Medical School administrators and doctors started the FFMI program in 2014 to encourage researchers to commercialize their inventions. The program provides awareness programs, funding, idea consultations and business seminars to expand awareness about the opportunities in commercialization.

The Office of Tech Transfer’s responsibilities are broader. It focuses on the entire commercialization process — including licensing agreements and intellectual property protection — and works with departments from all University campuses. The two organizations have partnered on many projects, however, including the Michigan Translational Research and Commercialization for Life Sciences Program, or MTRAC, which awards extra funding and consultation to especially promising projects.  

Nisbet said the University’s excellence in research is a factor in its commercial success.

“Our researchers here — our faculty — win competitive grants to answer questions from the proposals that these federal agencies have, which is why we have $1.3 billion of total spending,” Nisbet said. “We have a number of very high-quality faculty that win these grants so we answer some basic science questions. So, that is sort of the root of everything here: our research operation.”

Woolliscroft said the University’s excellence in a broad variety of disciplines is another reason for the recent success.

“One of the things that we have here that is a phenomenal advantage over the vast majority of universities is that we have a top-ranked engineering college, top-ranked medical school, business school, etc.,” he said. “So there’s great expertise across campus the likes of which only one or two other universities can duplicate.”

Nisbet said he believes these levels of success will continue because researchers will come back to the Office of Tech Transfer after successful experiences.

“I think it’s a gradual build,” he said. “FFMI was definitely a major component, but there were a whole lot of other factors that led to it. And that’s good news because it means that this momentum will continue.”

Woolliscroft said a new generation of wearable health-monitoring devices, which could be developed through the Office of Tech Transfer’s IT health program, could revolutionize future medical practices.

Despite this positive momentum, Nisbet and Woolliscroft said there are many hurdles to overcome. Both mentioned the sheer difficulty of guiding a product from conception to profitability. Nisbet said the threat of declining federal funding means the University will have to fight to increase the share of grants it receives, and Woolliscroft said regulatory issues often slow the progress.

“Too frequently, our regulatory processes and agencies have not kept up with the progress in science and technology,” Woolliscroft said. “There’s a big push through the 21st Century Cures bill to modernize the FDA and these processes, but we’ll have to see with our political process if that goes forward or not.”

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