Elliot Soloway had a vision for revolutionizing the way children
interact with technology in the classroom. Even though he was
already a professor at the University in the schools of
Engineering, Education and Information, he knew that the best way
to impact the educational community would involve going beyond his
academic career and developing a product for commercial use.

In 2000, Soloway did just that, becoming the chief executive
officer of his own company, GoKnow, Inc, which focuses on
integrating technology into the classroom and has worked closely
with schools in cities like Detroit and New York.

An increase of 15 percent in standardized test scores in schools
the company has worked with in Detroit has created a positive buzz
for GoKnow and helped it find customers in countries like England
and Norway, Soloway said.

“When each kid got a pencil, it changed education,”
he said. “When each kid got a book, it changed education. And
when each kid has a computer, it will change education.”

Ideas such as Soloway’s, which encourage innovation as a
collective rather than competitive effort to better people’s
lives, are the driving force behind the University’s Office
of Technology Transfer, which put on yesterday’s Celebrate
Innovation event in the Michigan League.

“I worked at Yale in an arrogant, highly competitive
environment,” Soloway said. “Then I came to Michigan,
and people were nice to me. People helped me.”

In recognition of Soloway’s achievements, the Tech
Transfer Office presented him with this year’s Excellence in
Innovation Award last night. While few students are aware of its
activities, the office is responsible for helping University
inventors turn their ideas into marketable products.

In addition to the legal and financial help the office gives to
inventors affiliated with the University to help them get their
innovations patented, the office’s Business Formation
Development Staff has helped launch 13 new start-up companies in
the last year alone. In total, 47 start-ups have been created in
the past five years.

In exchange for this aid, the University has received $11.7
million in revenue as a result of royalties from the products it
helped get onto the market. However, this constitutes only a small
portion of the University’s $749 million research budget.

While the University is one of the largest and most renowned
research universities in the world, it has been lagging far behind
other universities in the number of patents and marketable products
being created by its professors, said Fawwaz Ulaby, the
University’s vice president for research.

In 1996, the University’s Board of Regents took action,
calling technology transfer an “integral component of (the
University’s) mission,” Ulaby said. Since then, the
University has taken steps to close the gap between itself and
other comparable research universities such as John Hopkins,
Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Tech Transfer Office, which started out with one part-time
employee in 1983, now employs 20 full-time staff members under
Executive Director Ken Nisbet. This year alone, there were 285 new
inventions accredited to University researchers, an increase from
257 in 2003.

“The quality and diversity of research at the University
of Michigan provides great strength to our institution and our
region,” Ulaby said in a news release. Of the 47 start-ups
launched in the past five years, two-thirds are headquartered in
Michigan, mostly in and around Ann Arbor.

The inventions at the event also encompass a broad spectrum of
academic fields and applications. Elliot Soloway’s inventions
— which range from a prototype GameBoy Advance game not yet
on the market to modified Palm Pilots used in Detroit middle
schools — were on display next to cancer research companies
like Molecular Imaging Research, Inc. and even the Michigan Solar
House, which consists of proponents of solar and other renewable
energy solutions for housing.

The Medical and Engineering schools account for the bulk of the
inventions, with departments in Electrical Engineering and Computer
Science and Internal Medicine responsible for 123 out of this
year’s 285 inventions.

 

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