Engineering a Turnaround

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

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.


Auner’s labs and clean rooms occupy the top floor of the Marvin I. Danto Engineering Development Center, located along Anthony Wayne Drive — a far cry from the single lab Auner created in a storage closet a dozen years ago.

His clean rooms contain the latest equipment, some of it funded by the likes of NASA or hand-built to precise specifications by Auner and his group for their work.

The equipment is unique for a research university, Auner says. The engineering center contains everything needed to build materials, prototype a new product, test it, and perform large-scale manufacturing, and SSIM’s computers are networked with those of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, one of the largest supercomputing centers in the world. A relationship with the College for Creative Studies, located in Detroit’s Cultural Center area, gives the group access to product and packaging design, completing the loop.

“We can make almost any material at the atomic level, then rapidly prototype,” Auner says. “We can do it very successfully.”

His labs are ISO-compliant, FDA-approved, and staffed by professional engineers picked from companies such as Troy-based Delphi Corp. — a benefit that speeds the path of research to innovation, but also requires a constant stream of funding that is sometimes hard to come by.

During the past 10 years, Auner has attracted more than $41 million in funding from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, the National Institutes of Health, and NASA. But relying on grants has also created a feast-and-famine cycle of funding.

Nonetheless, Auner and his team are readying a bevy of tiny devices for market. Among the projects under way at SSIM:

• A three-dimensional ultrasound test to detect and blast the earliest stages of cancer missed by traditional screenings. The team is researching whether the method might also prevent more cancer cells from returning.

• Electronic implants for the eyes, spinal cord, and brain that might restore sight or hearing, or help diagnose and treat neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s. The devices would reroute connections in the brain around diseased areas in ways that the body accepts as natural, restoring as much muscle movement as possible.

• Chemical and biological sensors that provide real-time detection of air or water-borne contaminants, or degrees of radiation exposure in humans.

• Tiny chips that could be used to scan cancer patients after a tumor is removed, to ensure no cancerous cells remain.

• Fabricating and micromachining wideband gap semiconductors for a range of applications — hybrid vehicles, for example — that require high levels of energy in extreme climate conditions.

• Smart sensors that can precisely detect anything from biological and chemical agents to car bombs, and can be used for entire fleets of vehicles or shipping containers.

• Tiny smart sensors that relate trauma caused by an explosion. Mounted on a helmet, the system could help monitor the number and severity of head injuries suffered by troops. The same system, installed on shipping containers, could detect tampering on a wide scale; it could also help doctors track patients’ medical histories.


The list isn’t exhaustive — Auner is known for nothing if not prolific curiosity and invention — and Auner isn’t alone in the region. Work that is under way at the state’s other major universities is raising eyebrows, as well.

In Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering is a national standout (last year the engineering school was ranked eighth in the nation by U.S. News and World Report).

It’s easy to see why. U-M researchers are investigating new materials, lifesaving technologies, and biomedical feats, as well as better ways to make things and power them. One group of researchers has created injectable solar-powered sensors that can operate nearly perpetually. The sensors monitor pressure changes in the eyes, brain, and in tumors in patients with glaucoma, head trauma, or cancer, helping to prevent blindness and other damage.

Another researcher has developed a composite plastic that’s as strong as steel but so thin it’s nearly transparent; while a group of researchers is working on organic light-emitting diodes that glow without the typical dose of required precious metals. The result could change the lighting industry. Scores of other researchers are producing work at U-M that could transform the way we heal, travel, compute, and entertain.

In Lansing, a researcher at Michigan State University has created a “wave disk engine” that can convert liquid fuel, natural gas, or hydrogen into electrical power. The engine could allow hybrid vehicles to travel 500 miles or more on a single electric charge. Another professor of electrical and computer engineering is developing nanorobotic and electromechanical systems that could provide new tools for manufacturing, electronics, and health care. Yet another researcher is working on face-recognition technology that can match sketches of potential suspects to mug shots on file in a database.

Meanwhile, at Lawrence Tech University’s College of Engineering in Southfield, Dean Nabil Grace is testing a bridge made of carbon fiber composites — something he says could double the structure’s lifespan with little maintenance. Other research is being conducted to develop lighter, stronger military vehicle armor.

Michigan is the perfect place to grow programs such as robotics and materials development, Grace says. Not only is the talent prevalent, but the seasons and the metro area’s heavy traffic load make testing new materials easy.

“Any structure, any bridge — if it survives here, we can duplicate it anywhere else,” he says.

In nearby Rochester Hills, Oakland University researchers are working to find new treatments for HIV, investigating biomass and other clean energy technologies, and pushing robots to mimic a fuller range of human movements than ever before.

Farther west, in Grand Rapids, Grand Valley State University’s Alternative and Renewable Energy Center was recently certified as a generator of solar power, and the school recently added a biomedical master’s degree. The university has been quickly expanding to meet industry demand for engineers equally steeped in theory and pragmatic real-world application, says Paul Plotkowski, Grand Valley’s engineering dean.


The state doesn’t suffer from a lack of demand for engineers or a lack of talent, the Engineering Society’s Trudell says. And despite a deep recession, cutbacks on federal funding dollars, and an automotive industry that continues to work toward recovery, Michigan’s universities and colleges are finding new ways to create an ecosystem in which their graduates can thrive.

Early in the new century, U-M aligned its science and engineering colleges with resources and technology transfer assistance to spur spinoffs and entrepreneurism, says Stephen Forrest, vice president of research at U-M’s School of Engineering. “Students and young people will follow where the jobs go,” he says. “This is creating stickiness. We’re creating more enterprises. The idea is to make a real innovation hub in this region, [so] we have a much higher rate of students staying here.”

Five years ago, U-M created a center for industry, giving engineers even greater opportunities for problem-solving. And nearly two years ago, it started a Venture Accelerator near its tech transfer offices to house startup companies dedicated to research in clean technology and smart sensors, among other innovations.

Yet another accelerator founded early last year at U-M is focused on students. Called TechArb, the incubator features such companies as Bebaroo, the so-called “Netflix for baby clothes” created by Allen Kim; June Energy, a startup that designs portable solar energy products for developing nations; Node Out, a smart phone app developer that uses crowd-sourcing to aid decision-making; and Sentient Wings, a company that makes unmanned aerial vehicles that are smarter and more functional.


Wayne State University’s TechTown is providing similar opportunities for researchers and private industry alike. Auner’s spinoff, Visca LLC, is based at the technology park, as are a host of biomedical and energy concerns that have made the university a biotech and clean tech hub.

The productivity of the engineering schools in the metro Detroit region and statewide make for good opportunities for venture capitalists, notes Tim Petersen, managing director of Ann Arbor-based Arboretum Ventures, an early-stage venture capital firm that focuses on the health care sector. That’s particularly true as venture capital migrates from the coasts inland. “Michigan, probably during the last decade, has risen from 28th to 18th (in venture capital funding),” he says. “The trajectory is in the right direction.”

Still, “venture capital doesn’t change in a year or two; it takes a decade,” he adds. Lengthy and rigorous R&D cycles are typical of biotech and other engineering disciplines. To illustrate the point, Petersen points to three of Arboretum’s more famous transactions as anecdotal evidence of Michigan’s promise.

A few years back, Arboretum made high-profile investments in U-M spinoffs such as HealthMedia, Handylab, and Accuri Cytometers. In 2008, Johnson & Johnson acquired HealthMedia; a year later, Handylab was bought by Becton, Dickinson and Co. for $275 million. Accuri Cytometers, a 2002 U-M spinoff, is in the midst of being acquired by the same company.

“At some point, you get enough data points to start a trend,” Petersen says.

Prasad agrees and thinks the key is integrating engineering schools with industry, health care providers, and others to innovate faster and better — but also to tell a regional story with a louder voice. “Drive around Detroit and ask yourself, Why do we have a resource like a CCS or Wayne State without its fingerprints all over the story (of our region)?” he asks. “The majority of the ideas are really strong and meritorious. I think we (should) amplify our strengths.” db

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