Longtime Wayne State University professor Joan Dunbar joined the university’s Division of Research as interim associate vice president of technology commercialization last year. In May, Hilary Ratner, vice president for research, removed the interim tag following a competitive national search in which "she emerged as the transformational leader the university sought," a news release stated.
Bloomfield-Bloomfield Hills Patch recently had the opportunity to ask Dunbar a few questions about the position, her philosophy, and the innovation going on at Wayne State University.
Congratulations on the new position, and can you describe what this opportunity means to you?
I have been at WSU for a number of years and have transitioned from being a bench scientist to now facilitating the translation of scientific discoveries into products and services for the public good. It is very exciting to be able to take that “raw“ discovery, identify the opportunity and pull together the resources to move that technology from academia to commercial development.
The processes of technology commercialization and the role of academia are evolving very rapidly and I look forward to engaging the faculty and our external partners as build the innovation engine at WSU.
In just one year, you've nearly doubled faculty invention disclosures, facilitated nine start-up opportunities, initiated a mentors-in-residence program, created an innovation fellows program, and launched the Technology Development Incubator. How are you able to manage and implement so many diverse initiatives in such a short period of time?
We have been very fortunate during the past year to have the financial support of the New Economy Initiative for Southeast Michigan (NEI). The funding has enabled WSU to implement the Technology Development Incubator, a proof-of concept program that provides funding for the validation studies for our early stage technologies.
The NEI grant also contributes to the support of our Mentors –in-Residence who are critical to the new start-up company activities of the office. The inclusion of these resource into the office have had a huge impact on our ability to deliver results.
How does a bio-med researcher transition into technology commercialization and research-based business incubators, or is that not that far of a leap?
It is not as much of a leap as you may anticipate. Technology commercialization is really an extension of the research enterprise. Research is about discovery, technology commercialization is about implementing those discoveries to solve real world problems . . . from new approaches to diagnosing and treating disease, to new ways of making high-strength steel and reinforced cement.
Technology commercialization is the convergence of the science and business and is a great place to be because you are actively engaged with the most recent advances in cutting-edge science.
Can you describe the importance of technology commercialization to WSU?
Technology commercialization is extremely important to WSU - for the faculty, the students as well as for regional economic development. It is very important that the culture of entrepreneurship and technology commercialization are woven into the fabric of the institution and that is definitely occurring at WSU.
Can you highlight some examples?
The engagement of student entrepreneurs through the Blackstone Launchpad and the Warrior Fund, the Innovation Fellows program operated by the Tech Commercialization office to educate the next generation of entrepreneurial scientists, the Technology Development Incubator and Mentor programs that are facilitated by the TC office and the venture accelerator programs at TechTown – the WSU incubator. Facilitating the transfer of innovative technologies from the university laboratories to the marketplace is the genesis of the creation of new companies, growth in high-tech employment opportunities and regional economic development.
Medicine and technology are so intricately linked now, and that connection will only continue to grow in the future. What are the challenges for a research institution, and WSU, in particular, to be at the forefront or at least in the conversation of this evolution?
Technology is changing so rapidly and everyone appreciates that it is all about conversion of the disciplines and interdisciplinary collaboration — computer scientists and engineers talking to biomedical researchers and clinicians. It is a matter of providing the forum for bringing the groups together to gain a better understanding of the clinical problems and using their unique and complementary skill sets to explore and devise a solution to the problem.
Tell us about your Michigan roots. And what are some of the places we may regularly see you at around town?
Actually, I was born and raised in Sydney, Australia. My husband and I met at the University of California, Irvine and moved to Michigan in 1987 when we were both appointed to the faculty at WSU's School of Medicine. One house, two sons and three cats later we are still living in Bloomfield Township after nearly 26 years. Guaranteed you will see me at least once each weekend at Maple and Telegraph at Starbucks and Trader Joe's.