Research drives growth in Michigan

Business Leaders for Michigan study finds state’s institutions compare favorably to strongest U.S. research clusters.
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Britany Affolter-Caine Courtesy Michigan’s University Research Corridor

As Michigan emerges from this year’s pandemic-induced recession, its largest research universities are poised to play an essential role, according to a new report.

Released last month by Business Leaders for Michigan, the study “How university-led economic development can transform our state’s future” reviews the economic potential of research universities in general, as well as the specific entrepreneurship and development work being done at Michigan’s University Research Corridor (URC) institutions — Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University.

“When it comes to fully restoring our state’s economic health and returning to our ‘road to the top 10,’ Michigan’s research universities are a powerful engine for growth,” said Doug Rothwell, president and CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan. “In addition to the daily work they do to help build a dynamic, skilled workforce, they also are incubating new technologies and ideas, accelerating innovation and making specific connections to support the communities they serve.”

The study analyzed the achievements of major research universities and found Michigan’s institutions stack up well when compared to other top U.S. clusters in three key areas:

  • Talent: University partnerships with employers, entrepreneurship programs and talent programs, including experiential education, makerspaces and workforce development programs
  • Innovation: National innovation rankings; technology transfer and research and development (R&D) expenditure data; and innovation programs, including incubators, accelerators, capital access and technical assistance programs
  • Place: High-level extension efforts (where applicable); research parks; and place programs, with a focus on community development engagements

“While each university uses its own approach, which is born out of institutional culture and tailored to meet the unique needs of the communities it serves, collectively, they are delivering potent economic assets, and many of them have the ability to be absolute game-changers,” Rothwell said. “As a state, we need to lean in on the work we do with our research universities during this time of unprecedented change and opportunity.”

Other findings:

  • Given their strong individual and collective performance in talent, innovation and place, the Michigan URC cluster’s performance is strong.
  • Most of the institutions studied mentioned economic development goals in their strategic plans, but several universities, especially Wayne State, have centralized and prioritized them.
  • Some university economic development offices are effectively leveraging their relationships with a wide variety of private and public sector partnerships to create mutually beneficial engagements.
  • The talent programs BLM identified primarily focus on entrepreneurship and experiential education, and there may be more opportunities for leading research universities to play a role in this space moving forward.
  • Innovation is the most robust area of programming for these research universities — in fact, they represent many of the top investors in R&D nationwide. While all of the universities have formalized their technology transfer efforts, several, including U-M, have a superior ability to catalyze the discovery of new technologies and drive the creation of new companies and commercial products.
  • While place-based engagements are the least common programming type identified, they often have the greatest opportunity to deliver well-rounded economic impact. MSU and other land-grant universities use their extension services to expand expertise and work with local communities. One example of placemaking led by a university is Grand Rapids’ Medical Mile, which started with the move of MSU’s College of Human Medicine to downtown Grand Rapids and has spurred a cluster of hospitals, research centers and job creation along Michigan Street.

Business Leaders for Michigan collaborated with Public Sector Consultants (PSC) of Lansing to research and deliver the report.

Britany Affolter-Caine is executive director of Michigan’s URC, founded in 2006, which strives to foster research collaborations; connect industry to innovation; and increase economic prosperity while making Michigan attractive to business and talent by training the next generation of highly skilled, in-demand workers.

Affolter-Caine was interviewed by PSC, along with other experts, to give input on how to frame the study, what metrics to measure and which universities across the nation are the recognized top-tier research universities that should be compared for the study.

Michigan’s URC institutions, MSU, U-M and Wayne State, are the only research universities in Michigan designated as R1 institutions by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education (CCIHE). This category is reserved for universities that engage in the highest level of research activity, which is measured by the number of doctoral degrees awarded and total research expenditures, according to the report.

Other peer R1 institutions in the study included Arizona State University, Duke University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Indiana University-Bloomington, North Carolina State University, University of Georgia, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Pennsylvania and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Affolter-Caine said the researchers hoped to prove just how significant a role R1 institutions play in not just economic development, but community engagement and development, and she believes the report accomplished that. She noted that the economic development they do plays out differently depending on the type of institution in question. Michigan’s URC contains three distinct university types: the nation’s largest public research university (U-M), a land grant institution (MSU) and an urban-serving institution (Wayne State). U-M’s strengths tend to lie in conducting research and translating innovation from the lab to the marketplace; Wayne State’s focus is to impact and strengthen the city of Detroit on a community and economic level; and MSU has a broader economic impact in every county across the state because of its extension services.

She said Michigan is fortunate to have a trio of R1s, unlike many other states that only have one or two. A recent report URC did, called “Confronting COVID-19,” showed the state’s three R1s between them are quickly innovating in response to the pandemic, with about 500 projects in the works on everything from diagnostic technology to medical devices to potential vaccines.

“In addition to that, we’ve done a ton of work in terms of training health care workers who are treating patients; making sure those frontline workers get the PPE and mental health care that they need; (and) providing expertise to policy makers, public health officials, educators, entrepreneurs, employers and even manufacturers on how to deal with the challenges … related to addressing COVID,” Affolter-Caine said.

“We were pretty shocked at the breadth and depth of these universities, and we could do it because we’ve had decades of investment in our research and infrastructure and talent infrastructure. And so, we had something to work with to make that pivot.”

Affolter-Caine said the COVID report by URC dovetailed nicely with the data unveiled by BLM and PSC.

“I’m just really pleased about this report coming out and with our largest business roundtable being behind and seeing the importance of these institutions,” she said.

She said she hopes the BLM/PSC report will be used to help industries partner with research institutions on talent, research and innovation; and also to inspire policymakers and the public to take pride in and support the R1s to have an even stronger competitive advantage and return on investment in Michigan.

The full BLM/PSC report on the economic impact of research institutions is at bit.ly/BLMuniversityimpact.

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