Economists, academics, and business leaders all agreed that researching new technologies and pursuing new businesses is the key to fixing Michigan’s struggling economy at a conference Monday and Tuesday.

Angela Cesere
Wayne State University President Irvin Reid joined University of Michigan President Marie Sue Coleman and Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon at a conference yesterday and Monday on the contributions of their universities to the state. (SAM

How to help the ailing state economy was the subject of conversation during a conference held at the Rackham Auditorium Monday and Tuesday.

The conference, held at Rackham Auditorium and hosted by the University Research Corridor – a coalition of made up of the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University – focused on the relationships between state universities and the state economy.

During the conference, the URC also announced a number of new projects, like the conversion of a former Pfizer facility into a laboratory for startup companies.

Other ideas included efforts to make online transactions easier and safer with the help of Google, IBM and Yahoo, and expanding research in alternative energy sources.

Most of those who spoke at the conference also agreed that to fix the Michigan’s economy, state universities must play a larger role.

The goal of the forum was to identify the major factors causing Michigan’s economic woes and possible solutions. Speakers said tech transfer offices, which help university professors patent their products, encourage business ventures in the state. Speakers also said that improving education, both at the K-12 and university levels, is important.

Charles Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering and the former president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said new strategies are required for the state to flourish economically.

“We have big obstacles to overcome,” he explained. “We really need to push hard on the education components.”

During his speech, Vest cited Chicago as a city that rose from an economic downturn. In an interview after his speech, Vest explained that, at one point, Chicago was in a similar situation to the one Detroit is in now. He described how 20 years ago Chicago experienced an upswing from its economic low.

He said people paid “a lot of attention to things like arts and culture, cleaning up the Chicago River and opening up old industrial sites for new waterfront development, condos, offices.”

Vest said Michigan’s future could go the same way as Chicago’s.

Michigan’s economy has declined as the American automobile industry has struggled.

Derrick Kuzak, a Ford executive, vowed that the company will stay committed to Michigan.

“Southeast Michigan will remain the core engineering center for many of our key systems,” Kuzak said. “We don’t want to create a global engineering network by having engineering sites in too many different locations.”

Kuzak’s speech also emphasized businesses working with universities to discover new technologies. The Research Corridor universities all have tech transfer offices, which were repeatedly praised at the conference.

Rick Snyder, CEO of Ardesta LLC, credited the Corridor universities’ transfer offices, but he said there’s still room for improvement.

“It’s a work in progress,” Snyder said during his speech. “We’re not the world-class players we want to be, but we’re pretty darn close.”

The main event of the first day of the conference was a panel comprised of the three university presidents.

During her speech, University President Mary Sue Coleman explained that the University Research Corridor’s goal is to foster change in the state’s economy.

“Through the URC we’ve leveraged our collective assets,” Coleman said. “We want to increase university partnerships across business and university sectors, and we think we can do that better than we can individually.”

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