LIVONIA, Mich. — Leaders from Michigan’s top three research universities made their case for funding to state senators Monday, focusing on the innovation and entrepreneurship their institutions are bringing to the state.
University President Mary Sue Coleman, Michigan State University President Lou Anna K. Simon and Wayne State University President Jay Noren were among the many higher education executives here on Monday to testify before the Michigan Senate Subcommittee on Higher education.
The presidents addressed the Senate subcommittee as a group, representing the University Research Corridor — a collaboration between the three schools.
While the presidents discussed different parts of their institutions’ work over the past year, the resounding message from each was that higher education could help move the state forward in an increasingly competitive economy.
Speaking before the subcommittee, Coleman said that “strong colleges and universities are essential to our state’s future.” She continued her testimony by talking about several programs at the University that nurture the entrepreneurial spirit, which she said has the potential to revitalize the state’s struggling economy.
“It is our job as a university to teach, encourage and reward innovation and creativity. That ranges from engineering and business to the arts and humanities,” Colman said. “Across the University we have over 100 courses that explore entrepreneurialism.”
Coleman highlighted programs like MPowered — the student group that sponsors the 1,000 Pitches competition — and introduced several entrepreneurs from the University, MSU and Wayne State who testified before the subcommittee on their experiences.
University alum Jason Bornhorst, a recent graduate of the College of Engineering, told the senators on the subcommittee about his work with three start-up companies.
“I’ve failed one company, sold another and am currently involved in a Hydroemissions start-up,” Bornhorst said.
Bornhorst talked about the company he sold, DoGood, which makes an iPhone application that encourages people to do good deeds, saying that the six-figure acquisition the company was able to secure was “not a bad deal” for a few young students.
“Just a couple of 23-year old kids with skills learned in our undergraduate degrees were able to build, grow and eventually sell a business to a multimillion dollar company within the span of eight months,” he said.
Bornhorst is now working for Mobiata — a company that makes travel applications for mobile devices and reached more than $1 million in sales within its first year of operations.
Bornhorst said his experience, though not commonplace, is also not rare among students at universities in Michigan.
“We’re certainly on the right track; let my personal story be evidence to that,” Bornhorst said. “And I’m not unique, I’m just one of many people both at the University of Michigan and all Michigan universities doing similar things.”
However, he said that the state of Michigan still has a great deal of ground to gain if it hopes to compete at the level of California’s entrepreneurship.
“The good news is that the talent and drive is present in the universities and we’re definitely searching for more funding and programs to help foster that growth,” Bornhorst said.
In addition to discussing student entrepreneurship, Coleman also talked during her testimony about faculty start-up companies that are helping to lift Michigan’s struggling economy.
“We’ve now seen 83 faculty start ups in the past nine years,” Coleman said. “If you do the math, that’s roughly one new business every six weeks since 2001.”
Coleman added that University faculty members have played a major role in securing stimulus money.
“Our faculty have been just as aggressive about attracting federal stimulus dollars to the state,” Coleman said. “Their proposals have garnered $225 million, which places the U of M among the top three universities nation wide in obtaining stimulus dollars.”
The university presidents took questions on a broad range of issues from members of the subcommittee following their testimony.
While asking the three higher education leaders a question about how they’re coping with cuts to state appropriations, State Sen. Liz Brater (D–Ann Arbor) applauded the presidents for the benefits they are bringing to the state.
“You’re forward thinking and forming this collaborative, I just can’t say how proud I am to hear about all the good things that are going on,” Brater said.
In an interview following the event, Coleman reiterated the success stories she shared with members of the subcommittee, saying she believes the state of Michigan can become a vibrant hub for innovation and entrepreneurship.
“Ten years from now if we look back and we have created an environment that is like Silicon Valley, wouldn’t that be great for Michigan?,” Coleman said. “That’s what we’re trying to get at. We want the legislators to see how that is possible. That is not impossible, it’s possible.”