Thursday, February 25, 2010

Connect Talent with Opportunity to Rebuild Economy

Daryl Weinert
Daryl Weinert, Executive Director, University of Michigan Business Engagement Center

Serendipity is a wonderful thing, but it's no way to build an economy.

We can't rely on dumb luck to connect the people, ideas and capital that will create the businesses of the future. We all love the stories of life-altering breakthroughs being pulled out of thin air.

One of Archimedes' "EUREKA moments," for example, resulted from a simple decision to bathe. When he immersed himself in water, he discovered that the volume of his body displaced an equal volume of water. Serendipity: A need to scrub away Grecian grime inspired a way to measure the volume of irregular shapes. But Archimedes' discovery was no fluke. As antiquity's leading mathematician, physicist, engineer, inventor and astronomer, he brought tremendous skill and background to the moment -- he had to tools to recognize what was happening as he descended and the water rose.

In the same way, good fortune or luck won't solve the problems that plague the Michigan economy. We must systematically catalog the tremendous resources we possess, attract or create the resources we lack, and develop systems to connect people, ideas and capital in creative and innovative ways.

Universities must play a critical role in building this web of creative connectivity. Universities are huge repositories of potential solutions: faculty and students brimming with talent, ideas and enthusiasm. But until recently, universities were fairly disconnected from the world of product development and commerce. Universities studied these worlds but rarely ventured into the day-to-day fray.

This is changing. Universities are bringing more and more practical engagement and experiential learning into classrooms. Student interest is exploding -- they see that these special programs can unlock their entrepreneurial passions . Opportunities abound for faculty to share their discoveries with the world and see them incorporated into real products for real people. And universities are engaging the broader community in a robust fashion. Some examples will illustrate this new connectivity.

For the past few years the University of Michigan's Technology Transfer office has hosted a team of student interns each summer in its Tech Start program. During the summer, these students team up with Tech Transfer staff and industry mentors to help U-M spin-off companies. The students get a chance to roll up their sleeves and experience the challenges and opportunities inherent in launching a successful business.

For some, this experience turns into a path that connects with opportunity. Gus Simiao came to the university as a graduate business student in 2006 and worked as a Tech Start intern on engineering Professor Michael Bernitsas' VIVACE technology. After graduation, Simiao kept in touch with Professor Bernitsas and, in 2009, moved back to Ann Arbor and accepted a job as CEO of Vortex Hydro Energy, a company formed to commercialize VIVACE, an ocean- and river-current energy technology.

Another important avenue from idea to opportunity is the annual MPowered Career Fair. It seems counterintuitive that a state as hard pressed as Michigan would have any exciting opportunities for students to stay and build their experience and launch careers, but the Fair, now in its third year, does indeed provide those opportunities, bringing together small companies and ambitious, talented U-M students.

The 2010 MPowered Career Fair targeted companies that have up to 500 employees and are willing to consider hiring U-M students for full-time, part-time or internship positions

For more information about the programs above, or to learn more about the university's growing web of engagement programs, visit the Business Engagement Center on the web.

The following video illustrates how the Business Engagement Center works with businesses.