Engineering a Turnaround

$2 Billion in R&D for Universities Make Believers of Region’s Researchers.


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Greg Auner’s day started the night before. The director of Wayne State University’s Smart Sensors and Integrated Microsystems program took a red eye from the West Coast to make it back in time for another full day of tours and meetings with business leaders and policymakers.

“I’d rather be in the lab all day,” Auner says. But as one of the region’s most prolific engineers, he has a bigger task. Behind his endless meetings with everyone from U.S. Sen. Carl Levin to Lockheed Martin executives to hospital system administrators and NASA officials is an effort to quickly translate new technology to the real world.

In Detroit, that takes hustle. The region and the state possess some of the best-trained and most experienced engineers in the world, says Darlene Trudell, executive director of the Engineering Society of Detroit — a potent reminder of Michigan’s extensive technical ingenuity. But, as the automotive industry declined, so did Detroit’s reputation as the cradle of invention.

Even as the region retained some of the top mechanical, electrical, and materials minds in the world, places such as Boston and Silicon Valley — where the wunderkinds and technocrats were gathering to build knowledge-based industries far from the grit of manufacturing plants — became synonymous with American ingenuity.

But seeds planted years ago by state university heads, researchers, and fledgling biotech, clean tech, and other startups are starting to grow roots, and Detroit’s reputation as a place that makes things that change the world is beginning to take on a fresh, new sheen.

The goal, college engineering department heads say, is to translate the engineering talent housed in university labs and career incubators into new industries, entrepreneurial startups, and a raft of technologies that will once again make Detroit a national capital of innovation. Connecting the collaborative clusters could help speed an innovation renaissance large enough to change the region, if not the world.


That’s hardly hyperbole. An up-close look at the $2 billion in R&D activity being done in the state’s universities has made true believers of once-skeptical researchers. “I had heard about the SSIM program at Wayne State,” says Dr. Madhu Prasad, director of the Innovation Institute at Henry Ford Health System and a professor at Wayne State, who came to Detroit from Harvard University. “People told me it was world-class and as good as, if not better than, anything at MIT or Harvard. I was pretty skeptical that there would be anything at the Wayne State College of Engineering that could compare.

“[Then] I visited Greg (Auner), and was absolutely astonished,” he says.

Auner’s work centers on making tiny sensors and integrating them with micro-machines that can be used for everything from diagnosing and treating patients with breast cancer or Parkinson’s, to allowing blind and deaf people to see and hear, to detecting contaminants in food supplies or drinking water.

Researchers elsewhere are concentrating on niches of Auner’s work, Prasad says, but Auner is one of the few to “assemble in a single program virtually all of the technological sciences in a multidisciplinary matter,” and to put the pieces in place to introduce them commercially at breakneck speeds.

“To combine every hard science technology and have expertise in academic to real-world translation, that’s pretty unique,” Prasad says. “I don’t know if there’s another place like it in the world. And I don’t think I’m overstating that.” 

Prasad and Auner will be working to take research more rapidly from bench to bedside at Henry Ford’s Innovation Institute, set to open in September. The institute represents “tens of millions” of dollars of investment by the Henry Ford Health System. The goal is to marry researchers such as Auner with physicians and industry leaders, to swiftly grow devices that can improve health care, medical devices, and safety.

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