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Picture this: A particularly lethal strain of the flu has been sweeping the globe, nearing pandemic levels.
Your kindergartener comes home from school one day exhibiting all the telltale symptoms. Several classmates have been absent due to illness. Alarmed, you take your child to the pediatrician.
Within minutes of taking a sample, the doctor returns with the reassuring news that your child is ill with a related but far less deadly strain of the flu. The simple treatment, which can begin immediately, includes a course of targeted medication, plenty of fluids and bed rest.
The diagnostic tool that allows such rapid detection of specific viruses and other pathogens is currently under development in the laboratory. (See the accompanying story, “Quicker diagnostics, alternative energy,” for details on two emerging local technologies.)
But before that tool can find its way into the hands of medical personnel, a complex network of systems and processes involving people, capital and infrastructure have been at work, supporting the technology at its various stages of development, from its initial conception in the laboratory and on through its entry into the market as a viable product.
|Pat McMahon, executive director of Project Future, and director of the Michiana TechConnection|
Creating the systems
The creation of those systems is the concept behind a unique initiative known as Michiana TechConnection, led by representatives of economic development, industry, research and education. The goal of this initiative is to equip the region with an ongoing framework to support the commercialization of new technologies arising out of the University of Notre Dame and other local institutions.
In a sense, they hope to connect a diversity of disparate dots into an interconnected network that creates a rich environment for new tech-based businesses to flourish.
“Our mission is to establish the systems that will allow innovative research and technologies to be commercialized here,” says Patrick McMahon, executive director of Project Future, who has spearheaded the initiative. “We’re working to create structures that will connect partners in the development of some of these new products. That is one example of the local business infrastructure issues that need to be in place so that our community can retain those ventures here, rather than seeing them disappear to other parts of the country or the world.”
Five main goals
According to McMahon, Michiana TechConnection has five major objectives:
1. To understand the strength of technology as a growth industry.
2. To understand the commercial potential of technology to supplant the manufacturing base, or what is known as the area’s “legacy industry mix,” which is no longer employing large numbers of people.
3. To determine which of those activities might precipitate related businesses here.
4. To analyze what systems should be in place in order to cause that to happen here.
5. To implement those systems in partnership with others.
“This is not intuitive to everyone,” McMahon says. “There are certain parts of the country that focus on innovation. Back in the days when the manufacturing giants were headquartered here, we had that kind of focus. But as the Midwest moved more into a branch plant economy, the innovation factor dwindled.
“MTC is a deliberate and structured effort to restructure what we had at the first part of the last century,” he says. “We need to get back into that same mode. It will require different sources and a different approach than when we were a manufacturing center.”
Sources for growth
|Robert J. Bernhard, vice president for research at the University of Notre Dame|
Currently, the greatest potential lies in intellectual property developed at universities — a potential that is enhanced by the fact that many of the large corporations are doing their research at universities, rather than at their own facilities.
Furthermore, McMahon says, small businesses are now the largest single growth factor in new jobs. That means that the general business community, including, he says, “private citizens pursuing a great idea from their garages,” is also the object of MTC’s efforts.
Initially, MTC’s focus was to start commercialization efforts with research originating from Notre Dame and the Indiana University School of Medicine–South Bend. From that foundation, the initiative will expand to other regional institutions.
According to Robert J. Bernhard, Notre Dame’s vice president for research, MTC is a crucial element in building a tech-based entrepreneurial ecosystem in the Michiana region.
“The identification of all of the elements of a pipeline for new ideas to be evaluated and nurtured along the path to commercialization is very important,” Bernhard says. “Notre Dame has been an early beneficiary of the effort because the focus thus far has been on Notre Dame intellectual property, and many of our faculty and staff have voluntarily participated in these efforts.”
Because Notre Dame’s research programs sit at the front end of the pipeline, they help to define what such a pipeline should look like.
“We were happy to serve as the original source of intellectual property for MTC to consider,” Bernhard says, “first, because we have a significant amount and diversity of IP to use to test the MTC process, and second, because it gave us a chance to see how others would evaluate our IP. Eventually, though, we expect the MTC process to be applicable to all sources of innovation in Michiana.”
A rich environment
|David Brenner, president and CEO of Innovation Park at Notre Dame|
The benefits of having Notre Dame here as a partner are unique to South Bend, McMahon says.
"The unique benefit we offer here is the very tight partnership involving the University, the City, the economic development organizations and others," he says. "This is because all of the parties are eager to make this happen."
The connections MTC is working to create are essential to helping start-up businesses gain momentum, according to Dave Brenner, president and CEO of Innovation Park at Notre Dame.
“We’ve already identified a number of potential corporate partners for our clients that you only think of as ‘somewhere else,’” Brenner says. “These are large corporations with valuable resources and expertise in the region, but they’re not very visible. The MTC initiative highlights their needs and creates opportunities for collaboration.”
Innovation Park represents a critical portion of the infrastructure issues MTC hopes to address. A second significant portion, Ignition Park, is being created by the City of South Bend to provide the crucial prototyping and manufacturing facilities for high-tech start-ups at the next level of their life cycle.
Innovation Park represents an ideal environment for these new companies to evaluate, research and develop product opportunities, McMahon says. At the next phase, Ignition Park offers great advantages because it will result in a “clustering” effect, with high concentrations of service providers who can provide targeted capabilities specific to that cluster.
“The development of those clusters takes time,” he says. “Having the City involved in those clusters creates a framework that allows investors the luxury of being patient as those products are developed. They won’t be forced to produce an immediate return on investment.”
While some of the resources are already in place to commercialize new technologies, more will likely be required. MTC’s next move forward will involve refining a set of proposals to touch on each of three main areas (human capital, funding capital and infrastructure) in order to determine what resources are already in place and which ones are still needed, to obtain the resources needed for implementation.
Ultimately, MTC hopes to reach across the entire Michiana region and to help entrepreneurs from a broad set of affiliations. Anyone with a good idea will be able to use the process to take the idea to the marketplace. In turn, new business ventures that grow and flourish are expected to have a significant positive economic effect on the region.
“One of our recent activities has been bringing things into balance,” McMahon says. “We have been narrowly focused initially on Notre Dame, but there are a lot of promising elements in the region that have not reached their full potential. It’s not a South Bend thing, nor a Notre Dame thing. The goal is to bring all of the elements together and push it forward quickly so that it can become a truly regional process.”