Press Statement as Part of the Release of the Michigan Economic Future Report

Press Statement of Thomas Zurbuchen, University of Michigan
April 13, 2009
My name is Thomas Zurbuchen, and I am the director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and a Professor for Space Science and Aerospace Engineering at the University of Michigan. Together with my group of students, skilled engineers, and technicians, we build instruments that explore interesting places around the solar system. But for many of us, the most interesting place right now is Michigan, our state. It is the State, of course, that our friends live in, and our kids go to school in, and also where we shop and where we spend many of our vacations.

We are therefore part of Michigan and we care about its future for entirely personal reasons. But, there are two more reasons we take the challenges occurring in Michigan very personally. First, we rely on Michigan to maintain excellence or to create excellence where we have not achieved it. Second, we have a tremendous and far-reaching set of tools that,  if deployed properly, can make us important partners in building the Michigan of the future.

Let me address the first topic and I am going to address it from the point of view of an educator who teaches scientists and engineers.  As we transition towards an economy driven by knowledge and with world-wide reach, all of our jobs are changing. The engineers we educate today will not work the same way as their parents did who may have earned degrees from the same proud Michigan institutions as their children.

An engineer we educate today will have his career peak in a different world – in around 20-30 years. We believe that our engineers will be successful because of two things we seek to give them: their deep knowledge provided by the world’s best, and their ability to work as entrepreneurs. When we talk about entrepreneurs, we don’t just think of two guys in a garage inventing the next big thing. That is fantastic if that happens right here. But, we think that such big things happen on a fertile ground of an environment of people with an entrepreneurial mindset. These are people who come to work with a sense of empowerment. How can I do this job better? Are there new ways to go about this which we are missing? How can we get to market faster? Entrepreneurs are described by people as confident and positive–not because things are all great, but because they know they can affect how things are. They take risks, calculated risk of course, but risk nonetheless. They embrace change. They are curious. They have ideas and talk about them! They lead and they can stimulate excitement in others to follow. I think of these people as “T-students” – they go very deep in their area of knowledge, but they have a tremendous breadth, reaching across disciplines.

You see, for us to be successful educators, we need our students to have such an entrepreneurial mindset which reaches beyond our campuses and into our communities. I don’t think it is possible to create such leadership disconnected from our surroundings. We need companies to walk on campus and talk to our students, to hire them as interns, to eventually hire them full-time. If we are successful with our students’ education, some of them will also start companies – why not right here in Michigan?

Let me come to my second point: we have a lot to offer. I could talk about this with many numbers. Again, I know U-M better than other schools. We have over $800M in academic research expenditures each year. In 2008, we had over 300 research disclosures, over 130 patent applications, resulting in nearly 100 licenses/option agreements and 13 startup companies last year alone. Over the past five years, we had 50 faculty-driven startups coming out of U-M alone.  Are we happy with that? No!

We think we have much more potential, especially on the back-drop of our changing educational needs. We don’t just need startups and licenses – we need to transform ourselves and our student body so that the entrepreneurial mindset is central to who we are as a University in the State of Michigan. Last year, we ran the biggest idea competition on any campus; we called it 1000 Pitches after I challenged the students to think 10 times bigger than what they initially told me they could do. Well, we got 1,044 ideas! Many of these ideas are put into practice. An idea is only a match, but it can turn into a big fire when somebody collects wood and paper, and shelters the flame until it lives on its own. The ideas =are the beginning; the entrepreneur makes ideas grow into companies, into passion.

That’s why we have well over 50 student companies now that came out of nowhere. I am often asked where their key emphasis is. I think we have three focal points currently: energy, biomedical and social entrepreneurship. We have many others, but that’s where I see most of the energy right now.

So, where are these students working when they graduate? Well, there is a short answer and a longer one. The short one is: they will go where there is opportunity. The long one is: 40% of the students across the three University Research Corridor campuses of Michigan, Michigan State and Wayne State said in a recent survey they would consider starting their own business and working there. Also, people who have had a good internship in a company are 2-3 times more likely to choose this company over other offers. I tried very hard to build such an internship program around our campus during the summer. Last year, we worked with the Detroit Regional Chamber’s MORE program with wonderful results for nearly 30 people. This year, we are putting money in from UM for 10-20 – this could be much bigger if we got a broader consensus on the importance of these transitory activities. I actually don’t think in the long run the U-M should sponsor that. This is where our partners take over and say, “It’s my job now!”

We have an entrepreneurship seminar on campus. 1.5 years ago we expected 20 students – we are now running the event each week with well over 350. Two weeks ago we had a talk by Phil Power, a UM alumnus who began his own chain of newspapers and now runs the Center for Michigan. I asked some students what they thought about his talk. Well, one guy told me “this was my favorite talk! I am from Michigan, you know, and we need to figure out how to build a better Michigan now.”

So, what’s next? I think we need to bet on talent to do what the Glazer and Grimes report suggests. It’s all about what we do with our smart people, not just in Universities, but around the State. I don’t believe in the “build it and they will come” strategy. A broad strategy of “find talent and build on it” is much more promising! At the University of Michigan, we want to be part of this, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because we cannot maintain excellence or become excellent if we fail to do so. That said, the current time is a time of great changes, and that’s when we decide who we are going to become. I think we have a few years to answer that question!

I told you before that I build space instruments to go to exciting places around the solar system. I actually think Michigan today is one of these exciting places. We have an enormous opportunity to affect what we are going to become. And, I personally want to be part of this.

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