In a maze of buildings on the University of Michigan’s North Campus in Ann Arbor, the Venture Accelerator, startup hub for intellectual property spun off by the Office of Tech Transfer from research and faculty at the University of Michigan, sits quietly on the block that used to be owned by Pfizer–protected now by a giant tom turkey that is trailed by a security detail to stop it from biting people. Diane Bouis, Innovation Program Manager at the Venture Accelerator, apologizes profusely for the wildlife and difficulty finding the right building, and ushers us inside to see these reclusive offices. She helps new ventures find resources and space in the many labs and offices housed here, where the Venture Accelerator hosts new companies. The Venture Center, Accelerator, and Office of Tech Transfer work in close conjunction here to support baby startups getting out into the world.
“I consider myself landlord and mother hen in the U of M Tech Transfer Venture Accelerator,” Bouis says, in her role as Innovation Program Manager. “I connect startups to resources: money, people, space. They might say, ‘Do you know a good accountant?’ Or ‘Where can I find a good business development person?'” She loves to help, to introduce people, and says that this is a big transition from her previous role as a scientist. Now she has discovered her talent for connecting people, and by all accounts she’s very good at it. Her name comes up repeatedly in conversations among life sciences people in particular in town, biomedical startups, and people who work in connected healthcare and software spun off from the University of Michigan faculty.
Bouis says that in her brief tenure here, she has tried to connect her several dozen U of M startups to the Ann Arbor tech scene. It seems to be working. “You have to meet Diane Bouis,” we heard no less than 5 times the week before our scheduled interview. In a town full of new tech ventures in life sciences in particular these days, we thought you should meet her along with us. Like Brooke Boyle or Dave Koziol or Ed Vielmetti, she’s one of those people who knows everyone in their piece of the tech ecosystem and will introduce you to a handful of interesting people in a heartbeat.
We asked Bouis what trends she sees in her stream of startups, which include mass search scan startup Censys, hot AI startup Voxel51 recently chosen as a top U.S. AI company by TechCrunch to present at Disrupt 2019, Arborsense graphene chemical biosensors, Akadeum Life Sciences, Inheret, Genomenon, and many more. “We see about 500 invention disclosures per year coming out of the University of Michigan,” Bouis says, “which, as of late, translates to approximately 20 startup companies a year, many of whom launch here in Ann Arbor. Of the commercialization projects moving toward startup, there’s a slight bias toward who would want to be here [in the Venture Accelerator]. If you’re an inventor with an academic lab at North Campus Research Complex or the College of Engineering, this is a convenient place to be. So we see a lot of life sciences and and engineering startups here.” When asked about other trends she’s seeing in terms of project incubating in the Venture Accelerator, she notes the number of new U of M grads who are joining startups. “I’m getting the sense that young grads want to at least try their hand at a startup,” she says. “Ten years ago most newly minted PhDs wouldn’t pursue a startup, but now they want to at least try doing something entrepreneurial,” before relying on the job market for success.
“Licensing is a large part of the Tech Transfer office,” Bouis says. “My role is to run the accelerator and move it from being what has historically been a relatively passive incubator space to providing a robust world-class space with value-add services and support, more of an accelerator program to get the company standing on its own.” Bouis says they don’t take a stake in companies because licensing their intellectual property means they already have a cut. It’s possible to obtain a patent, say, and not create your own venture based on the intellectual property, but if you do decide to build a company out of your invention or software, the Venture Accelerator will support you in finding the best scenario to make that happen. “When our startups win, we win,” Bouis says, and it sounds like more than a pat line, because she does ask after her baby startups repeatedly as we tell her we’ve been meeting them out in the wild. Their success visibly pleases her.
“Pairing with our in-house mentor team is a key to success when it comes to the early stages of understanding how to best structure and launch a new startup,” Bouis tells us. Mentors at Tech Transfer are on staff around 20 hours per week, and come with years of industry experience in the specific field where startups are focused. But the Venture Accelerator doesn’t promote trending industries, but rather supports what is already emerging organically from university research and faculty work.
“There is a lot of interest from VCs in areas like AI, security, mobility, health IT,” Bouis says of trends she’s seen in funding lately, “but there’s only so much we can do because we don’t steer research at the University of Michigan, we just give it a good home when it is time to explore the commercialization opportunities.” AI and security are getting a lot of attention lately, she confirms. “There are great people here [in Ann Arbor]. Bringing people together is what makes an ecosystem tick. Our goal is to plug them into startups.”
What’s going on in Bouis’s space that wasn’t several years ago? “I believe we’re at an inflection point,” Bouis tells us. “What success looks like in the future is always murky, [but] if I leave an IT company today and I’m good I’m likely to get an offer in a month or two. What I would like success to look like is that in 5 or 10 years when someone leaves a life sciences or electronics company in town they get another offer in the same timeline. We can help make that happen.”
To connect with Diane Bouis, find her at accelerator events like the Celebrate Invention conference coming up in the fall, or you might see her at A2 Health Hacks hackathon in town, which she co-founded. The hackathon is in its fourth year, and growing in popularity. It might be a better place to find Bouis than fighting your way past the turkey and the security van.