As companies from around the country and the world are moving to Michigan, one of the many reasons they cite for coming here is the number of high-profile, research-based universities in the state.
Within 90 miles of Detroit, you have several large universities, including Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University.
Aside from the technologically skilled workforce that the university system produces, there is an additional benefit to companies: technology transfer. Universities across the state and around the country have technology transfer offices. The program is designed to allow businesses to utilize the research and development functions of universities. As Michigan looks to diversify the economic base of the region, these offices are very much involved in the process.
"I see university technology transfer as being more and more important all the time," said Eric Stief, commercialization principal at Wayne State's technology transfer office. "Diversifying our economy and getting our students to think like entrepreneurs all the time can turn us into another Silicon Valley."
Chuck Salley, president and CEO, NextCat, believes that Stief's on the right track. Salley, who was involved the development of Ann Arbor SPARK and other business incubator-style organizations, believes that the "intellectual horsepower" that comes out of these entrepreneurial/university ventures are going to grow going forward.
"The ecosystem for entrepreneurship is much more developed now than it was 10 years ago when I started in the space," he said. "The Michigan Economic Development Authority has had some major programs, and they've developed into some interesting support mechanisms. The universities are teaching their students to be more entrepreneurial. Those things are much more robustly funded than in the past."
Salley worked with the Wayne State tech transfer office on NextCat, which is commercializing a series of catalysts for use in biodiesel production, developed at the National Biofuels Energy Lab at Wayne State.
In this case, the company solved a problem. Currently, 80 percent of the biodiesel plants in the U.S. are idled because they cannot produce biodiesel profitably.
The biggest cost of producing biodiesel is feedstock. To produce one gallon of biodiesel using traditional technology, it takes more than seven pounds of soybean oil at a cost of $2.70, and about $.60 of processing and...