City Club of Cleveland Address: The Role of Research Universities in Transforming the Midwest Economy
February 6, 2009
One hundred thirty years ago this spring, a remarkable achievement in American science and technology came to light just two blocks from here.
On an April evening, thousands of people gathered on Public Square, where a series of 150-foot poles had been erected. Powered by a nearby dynamo, the poles sprang to life with a bluish-purple brilliance that blanketed the square in light.
A band played, horses reared up, an artillery squad fired a celebratory salute, and a new era dawned for America’s urban areas: A reliable system of electric street lights had been born, and the Washington Post announced “the death knell of the gaslights.”
The 30-year-old inventor of this public lighting system was, as you may know, Charles Francis Brush of Cleveland. His name and his ingenuity were prominent throughout the region in the late 19th century. And his electric lighting system was soon illuminating the streets of New York, Montreal, San Francisco, and dozens of other North American cities. Brush lights made neighborhoods safer, allowed families to take after-dinner strolls, and brightened retail districts well into the evening. They also made Charles Brush a millionaire.
What you may not know is that Charles Brush was a graduate of the University of Michigan. He came to Ann Arbor for an engineering degree and took courses not only in chemistry, mechanics and mathematics, but also in rhetoric, French, and history. He earned his degree in less than three years by being a non-stop student and attending summer classes.
Charles Brush ushered in a new era of technology for our country, using the talents he developed growing up in Cleveland and the knowledge he gained studying at the University of Michigan. As a scientist and entrepreneur, he helped society transition from one energy technology to another, and in doing so transformed our way of life.
Whether in the Victorian era or the digital era, research universities prepare the people who solve the problems of the world. And those problems are more than abundant here in the Midwest, where our industrial centers are struggling, our traditional economies are in a state of flux, and our citizens are anxious about the future.
Research universities excel at creating solutions for our future. At Michigan, by drawing upon our vast and unique strengths of education and innovation, and finding partners outside of our traditional academic comfort zones, we will be a beacon of progress for America of the 21st century.
I was eager to accept your invitation to be here today, because our respective regions and states have so much in common in terms of achievements and challenges. Here in the Midwest, we are home to great universities, cities that built themselves on hard work, beautiful lakes and shorelines, and a tapestry of cultures and ethnicities that make our communities vibrant.
You have much to be proud of here in Cleveland, which has dedicated itself to reinvention. From the arts to the health sciences, Cleveland is emerging as a real jewel in the Great Lakes region.
We also have our challenges, and at the top of that list is the economy. The Midwest is not alone in this malaise, but we are often the national poster child for the economic downturn because of our manufacturing heritage and the difficult transition we are making to a knowledge-based economy.
The state of Michigan is, of course, home to the auto industry. We are proud of our contributions to the American and world economies through the vehicles and spin-off technologies we design and build.
But we are undergoing a dramatic transformation, in our state and throughout the Midwest. No longer can children grow up knowing that a well-paying job, with benefits, awaits them at the local assembly plant. No longer do mid-level managers plan careers with, and devote loyalties to, one company. And no longer do executives fret just about next year’s models, but also the next decade’s health care and pension costs.
The state of Michigan – much like Ohio, and Indiana, and Illinois – is being forced to reinvent an economy built on new knowledge and innovation.
A year ago, the Brookings Institution issued a detailed report on the Great Lakes region and our role in North America’s economic leadership. It made a point of our history, with bustling ports and factories in cities like Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee and Chicago. With that industrial growth came an enviable range of colleges and universities, and it is the work of these institutions – including the University of Michigan – to help our region right itself for the demands of the 21st century.
We should take great pride in knowing that the Great Lakes region is home to more of the world’s top-ranked universities than any comparable region on the globe. When Shanghai Jiao Tong University – one of China’s leading research universities – created a list of 100 best universities in the world, 20 of them were here in the Great Lakes states. That’s one in five world-class institutions in our backyard – more than in the Northeast with the likes of Harvard and MIT, and more than along the West Coast, with Berkeley and UCLA.
Case Western is on that list, as is Ohio State. The Brookings Institution called this generous locus of knowledge “an unrivaled center of innovation, education and talent generation” – one rich in research, development and new ideas.
We have a bit of a building boom underway in Ann Arbor. Over the past five years, our university has committed nearly $2.5 billion and almost 5 million square feet of new space to life sciences research, education, technology, engineering and – we believe – economic growth.
Most recently, we purchased the former headquarters of Pfizer, the drugmaker whose global R&D operations were housed in Ann Arbor until 2007. This will be one of the largest expansions of the University in more than a half-century, and will allow us not only to broaden our contributions as one of the nation’s premier research universities, but also to strengthen the region's ability to stimulate new business.
At this new site and elsewhere across our campus, we are investing in stem cell research, new forms of energy, biomedicine, and nano-science, because we believe this is our future as a state and a region.
And just as we are investing in these important areas, others are investing in us. The University of Michigan’s research portfolio is one of the strongest in the country, because of the support of business and industry, philanthropists, and, most important, taxpayers like you. In the most recent fiscal year, our sponsors provided more than $875 million to support our scientists and researchers.
And our donors have demonstrated a level of giving never before seen at a public university. In our recently completed capital campaign, alumni and friends contributed more than $3.2 billion.
More impressive is the fact that 60 percent of the money raised came from out of state – from California, and Illinois, and here in Cleveland, where donors contributed more than $30 million. I know we have alumni in the room with us today, including members of our Cleveland Major Gifts Committee, and I want to thank them for their faith in Michigan.
This is a tremendous level of investment, and I do not know of any other organization in our state – public or private – that attracts these kinds of dollars. Our benefactors could put their money anywhere – in their churches or synagogues, in the Lions Club or Humane Society – but by choosing to commit to our university, they are investing in the future.
This infusion of support heightens our responsibility – and our determination – to produce results, through our research, our technologies, and our service.
That is why we are changing ourselves to amplify our impact.
For example, we have a new hiring program to attract 100 junior faculty who specifically excel at teaching and research that crosses academic boundaries. The world is not neatly divided into the academic disciplines that for so long have been part of our campus culture, and these new professors will be well-suited for addressing complex issues in technology, the environment, public policy, and other arenas. Their research, and the students they teach and mentor, will make a difference.
And we are nurturing a campus culture of entrepreneurship, where we encourage faculty, staff and students to push the envelope with innovative ideas for the marketplace.
This entrepreneurial spirit showed its power this past semester with a competition we called 1,000 Pitches. It was a campus-wide initiative we hoped would produce 1,000 new business proposals from students eager to share their ideas and discoveries.
We were worried we would not receive one thousand ideas. But, in fact, we received 1,044 – hundreds upon hundreds of proposals for new businesses, inventions, and non-profit organizations, all pulled together in three months’ time and posted on YouTube.
One student proposed using cell phone technology to design a system that translates sign language into speech, and vice versa. His innovation joined such diverse proposals as one that converts wastewater into biodiesel fuel, and another that designs low-cost surgical lamps that are reliable in operating rooms in developing countries.
One Thousand Pitches was a fabulous, engaging demonstration of students’ creativity and potential to innovate – skills that will be paramount as they move on from Michigan. Our graduates – and there are nearly a half-million of them – are our best ambassadors, as they transfer the knowledge they gained on campus to communities around the globe.
For our faculty, we’re accelerating our technology transfer efforts to encourage and reward professors who move their inventions and innovations from the lab to the marketplace. In the past five years, the creations of our faculty have generated nearly 50 start-up companies – that’s a new business opening its doors every five weeks. One new company, every five weeks.
And speaking of opening doors – we’ve established a Business Engagement Center near our campus, with the express purpose of better connecting the University with business and community partners. We are committed to helping attract, retain and nurture high-growth companies in our area, and this office is a bridge between our students and faculty and the growing industries in our region. The demand for assistance is exploding.
I hope I’m giving you a sense of the activity rippling across our campus. We believe we can do no less in this climate of uncertainty and anxiety. Hands-on engagement in supporting economic development is atypical for U-M in a historical sense, but we are energized and enthusiastic about what we can offer our region at this time.
But we cannot do this alone.
Our two states are home to great sports teams and traditions. Be it the Buckeyes, the Browns, or LeBron, Ohioans love their players and their teams. And in Michigan, we rally behind the Red Wings, the Tigers, and, of course, the Wolverines.
We cheer for our teams because we enjoy seeing individuals pull together to produce a winning effort. We love the energy of collaboration, because bringing together diverse strengths creates results. It does not mean sacrificing leadership – it means enhancing it.
That is why I believe so strongly in alliances at the University of Michigan, because as leaders we must find new partners – new teammates – to expand our successes.
That includes a new enterprise we call the University Research Corridor. Where North Carolina has the Research Triangle and Northern California has Silicon Valley, the state of Michigan has the University Research Corridor.
Our university has joined with Michigan State and Wayne State University in Detroit to create a team committed to advancing the region’s economy. Think about Case Western, the University of Akron, and Ohio State coming together as partners, and you will have a sense of the University Research Corridor.
Now, there is no doubt that our universities have our rivalries – no one enjoys beating Michigan State more than I do. But the URC is about the real playing field – the global economy and our state’s role in it. By combining the research muscle of these three institutions, we are saying to the people of Michigan: We are making our state stronger.
The University Research Corridor generates more than 69,000 jobs and $13 billion in economic impact. And we are a jobs magnet that is growing ever more powerful. In the past seven weeks alone, the URC has announced five projects that could lead to almost 18,000 new jobs. That includes a decision by IBM to locate a global computing center at Michigan State, and a move by a Massachusetts firm to locate in metropolitan Detroit to build advanced batteries for hybrid and plug-in vehicles.
This growth is made possible by working with our cities and our state. And it comes on the heels of attracting what you might call two “anchor” companies: Google selected Ann Arbor for its first office outside of Silicon Valley, and Aernnova, a Spanish aerospace firm, opened a North American center in town because of our strong engineering culture.
Students in our aerospace engineering program like to wear a T-shirt that says, “As a matter of fact, I am a rocket scientist.” But you don’t need an engineering degree to appreciate the power of research universities to propel the economy. Attracting companies like Google and Aernnova acutely demonstrates how the University Research Corridor can – and does – make our state a leader in supporting innovative and entrepreneurial firms.
The URC is only two years old, and we are just now taking baby steps. I attended graduate school at the University of North Carolina just as the Research Triangle was taking shape; I returned to Chapel Hill many years later as an administrator and was pleasantly stunned by the collaboration between UNC, Duke and North Carolina State. These partnerships take time, and I can’t wait to see where the URC will take us.
Collaboration is our future. Whether we pull together scientists from opposite ends of our campus or opposite sides of the country, we must call upon our best people to develop solutions for our future.
Academe is known for saying, “Publish or perish.” I say, “Partner or perish.”
We need our fellow universities and their niche strengths. We need our local industries and the opportunities they provide our students and faculty. We need our donors’ support, and we desperately need our state legislatures to sustain and increase the funding that allows us to move toward a flourishing future.
I began today talking about Charles Brush and his gift of innovation. After he made his fortune, he built an imposing stone mansion along Euclid Avenue, where the Red Cross now stands. He powered his home with a wind turbine, a towering windmill more than six stories high, and over the course of 20 years it provided all the energy necessary for his three-story home.
He was a true pioneer in alternative energy, and I think he would be pleased to know that his alma mater is continuing such pathbreaking work.
He would certainly want to know Professor Ann Marie Sastry, who really embodies all that we are committed to as a university dedicated to economic development.
As was Mr. Brush, Professor Sastry is an engineer focused on alternative forms of energy. Her expertise is battery technologies and how best to power the plug-in cars and trucks we need to distance ourselves from foreign oil.
I mentioned how we are building entrepreneurship in our students. Professor Sastry created a graduate-level program to train tomorrow’s engineers in new energy systems. The program instills the value of being creative about transportation power and being leaders in clean energy technologies.
I talked of tech transfer and start-up businesses: Professor Sastry is the founder and CEO of Sakti3, a company designated by the state of Michigan as a Center of Energy Excellence, meaning it is viewed as a focal point for spurring alternative energy R&D in our region. Our state’s leaders want Michigan to become the advanced battery capital of the world, and I believe Professor Sastry’s company will help drive us there.
And I’ve told you how much we value partners. Just last month, General Motors announced it is collaborating with Professor Sastry to establish the Advanced Battery Coalition for Drivetrains – that’s ABCD – on our campus. It is a multi-million-dollar investment to test and design advanced batteries, as well as train dozens of GM engineers to develop the next generation of electric cars.
U-M alumnus Charles Brush lit up Cleveland and cities across the country with his invention. Ann Marie Sastry and thousands of Michigan faculty and students are collaborating with each other, and with partners throughout the region, to electrify our economy.
Together, we are propelling the Midwest’s standing as a dynamo, a powerhouse of innovative growth and economic vitality, where bright ideas light the way to a prosperous future.