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Beyond the Breakthroughs

Beyond the Breakthroughs

By Alex Piazza

An engineer in west Michigan designs pediatric treadmills that University of Michigan researchers use to study the mobility of children with Down syndrome.

And a small engine manufacturer in southern Michigan leveraged support from economic development experts at U-M to transition his expertise in high-performance motorcycle engines to designing a hybrid drone engine for the military.

Research expenditures at U-M have exceeded $1 billion every year since 2009, and that has led to breakthroughs that impact virtually all facets of society. But beyond the breakthroughs, the university’s vast research enterprise plays an essential role in accelerating Michigan’s economy.

URCIn 2017, U-M, Michigan State University and Wayne State University contributed $18.7 billion to the state’s economy. The three universities, which comprise the University Research Corridor, also generated more than 78,000 jobs last year, according to an Anderson Economic Group report released this month.

“The breadth and depth of research here at the University of Michigan leads to new discoveries that advance industries, create jobs and drive our state’s global competitiveness,” said U-M President Mark Schlissel.

The university’s Economic Growth Institute and Institute for Research on Innovation and Science measure the economic impact of research, while leveraging resources from across campus to support companies and communities statewide.

Measuring Impact

Dale Ulrich

U-M Professor Dale Ulrich determined that just a few minutes of
daily treadmill training can help accelerate the walking habits of
children with Down syndrome. Photo: U-M School of Kinesiology

Sam Carlin has built 50 pediatric treadmills for U-M researchers so they can study the mobility patterns of children.

The custom exercise equipment helped Professor Dale Ulrich determine that just a few minutes of daily treadmill training can help accelerate the walking habits of children with Down syndrome.

“Treadmill training in the home of infants with Down syndrome helps reduce the infants’ significant delay in learning to walk,” said Ulrich, professor of movement science and health fitness. “Once any infant can walk, we see advancements in their cognitive, social, emotional and physical development because they can explore their environment and learn.”

Grants awarded to Ulrich and other U-M researchers covered the $50,000 bill for the pediatric treadmills. And that funding helped Carlin expand his Sturgis, Mich.-based company, which has designed about 350 specialty treadmills for hospitals, schools and families worldwide.

Carlin’s Creations is one of many Michigan-based vendors that supplies products and services to support the university’s research enterprise, and the U-M Institute for Research on Innovation and Science (IRIS) tracks those purchases to measure economic impact.

Launched in 2015, IRIS collects administrative data from more than 30 colleges and universities nationwide in an effort to better understand, explain and improve the public value of research. The team at IRIS develops reports based on that data to help researchers, government agencies and policymakers interpret how university research supports and expands opportunities for businesses across the country.

Jason Owen-Smith

Jason Owen-Smith

“What grants let you do is hire people and buy stuff to get research done,” said Jason Owen-Smith, executive director of IRIS. “That helps pump money into the economy, it supports jobs across the state and it makes Michigan more resilient.”

U-M spent $262 million from sponsored projects last year to purchase goods and services in support of research. More than 50 percent of those purchases were from in-state vendors, which far surpasses the national average by about 20 percent, IRIS data shows.

In addition to vendor purchases, IRIS also measures job creation and the economic trajectories of researchers in new or existing companies.

“At the end of the day, a very significant amount of money that we spend on research comes from tax dollars,” said Owen-Smith, a professor of sociology and public policy. “We get that money, with the promise not only that we will do work that makes the state of human knowledge better, but that ideally we are doing work that will eventually make the quality of life better. We don’t understand well enough how that happens, so data like these and infrastructure like IRIS lets us not only feed back some information in the near term, but also sets up an opportunity to turn our best research on ourselves and really understand how universities contribute to public value.”

Supporting Small Business


Sean Hilbert, owner of Cobra Aero, partnered with the U-M
Economic Growth Institute to help expand his business. Hilbert now
designs small engines for U.S. military drones. Photo: Cobra Aero

Drones are an important surveillance tool used by military agencies worldwide.

The cameras affixed to some of these drones can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but there often was one underlying issue. The engines operating the drones are not all developed for military application, and so many of the drones crashed, destroying the expensive cameras.

Sean Hilbert, meanwhile, had no experience working with drones. He grew up racing motocross and used his engineering expertise to develop high-performance engines for motorcycles. Then came the economic downturn, and Hilbert was forced to reassess his future.

Hilbert wanted to expand beyond motorcycles, so he connected with the U-M Economic Growth Institute. The team there connected Hilbert to a variety of funding and networking opportunities. Nowadays, Hilbert is designing small engines for U.S. military drones.

“Working with the Economic Growth Institute has truly been a dream come true for us,” said Hilbert, owner of Cobra Aero in Hillsdale, Mich. “We’re a small entity and we didn’t have a ton of resources to begin with, but the institute has really helped us expand our capabilities, and we couldn’t be more excited for the future.”

The institute, formerly known as the Institute for Research on Labor, Employment and the Economy,  works with hundreds of small- and medium-sized companies and communities throughout the Midwest, leveraging U-M resources, research, technologies and expertise to foster innovation and create positive economic impact.

Paula Sorrell

Paula Sorrell

Through a variety of programs, the institute helped create or preserve more than 52,000 jobs and has maintained a 97 percent survival rate for its clients—often companies in distress or at a critical growth point. And in working with companies across Michigan, Indiana and Ohio, the institute has helped launch hundreds of new technical products and increased revenues in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

“The federal government, states and foundations are putting more effort into helping American businesses and communities adjust and compete in an increasingly technology-driven and globalized marketplace,” said institute Director Paula Sorrell. “The Economic Growth Institute helps train the next generation of leaders in business and economic development, while the return on investment (ROI) for taxpayer dollars spent on our programs currently result in an ROI of up to 3,000 times in new revenues for our client companies, leading to more jobs and income in government coffers.”


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