U-M counts record startups, inventions in FY20

Rebounding with resilience

The University of Michigan launched a record 31 startups in fiscal year 2020, a 40-percent increase during a period that included a pandemic and temporarily shuttered labs.

U-M inventors went to market with a wide range of discoveries, including those from a company using machine learning predictive modeling to help cities like Flint replace their lead-tainted water pipes to another that pivoted from prostate cancer screening to rapid COVID-19 testing during a global health crisis.

U-M researchers reported a rise in new inventions, with a record 522 for the fiscal year that ended June 30 — up from last year’s 502.

“The launch of 31 new startup companies last fiscal year is a testament to the strength and resiliency of the University’s growing innovation ecosystem,” says Kelly Sexton, U-M associate vice president for research-technology transfer and innovation partnerships.

“This record-breaking growth in startup formation is important in 2020 because these new companies will be meaningful contributors to the growth and diversification of our state’s economy as we work to rebound from the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

U-M Tech Transfer also reported 163 issued U.S. patents in fiscal year 2020, down slightly from 171 in fiscal year 2019. It also signed a record 268 license and option agreements with companies seeking to commercialize the discoveries of university researchers in the past fiscal year — up from 232 in FY2019.

“As the nation’s leading public research university, we have an obligation to ensure that our research discoveries are translated from the lab to the marketplace in ways that positively benefit society,” says Rebecca Cunningham, U-M vice president for research and professor of emergency medicine.

“The challenges presented by COVID-19 have elevated our sense of urgency and responsibility to ensure that our research leads to improved health care outcomes, enhanced quality of life and new opportunities for economic growth,” Cunningham says.

Research and innovation

The startups raised $237 million during the year, which also marked four “exits” via mergers, acquisitions, or initial public offerings. The startups also brought in revenues from licensing totaling $14.5 million. Much of that revenue is invested in University research and innovation.

Notable startups this year included:

  • BlueConduit: A water infrastructure analytics company that uses data and machine learning to help cities do service line inventories and replacement. The team pioneered this use of predictive modeling to help the city of Flint save tens of millions of dollars and accelerated the removal of dangerous infrastructure. BlueConduit is doing the same in water systems covering more than 30 cities.
  • LynxDx: The company, which launched with a promising prostate cancer test, saw its work grind to a halt when the pandemic struck. So the team marshaled its tools, talent, and capacity to pivot to COVID-19 testing and help address a growing public health need. In the past 14 weeks, LynxDx has grown from four employees to more than 30 and has supported the Michigan community by performing more than 30,000 COVID-19 tests from all across the state.
  • Refraction AI: The company began delivering food late last year in Ann Arbor with autonomous REV-1 delivery robots (pictured above). The battery-powered robots have a top speed of about 15 miles per hour and operate mainly in bike lanes. Their low speed enables them to use inexpensive camera-based navigation systems, making their cost feasible for a delivery service.

Other innovation highlights in 2020 included a new partnership between U-M and health care investment firm Deerfield Management Co. that’s creating a company called Great Lakes Discoveries to commercialize therapeutic projects that hold promise in solving unmet medical needs. In May, Deerfield committed up to $130 million over the next decade to invest in biomedical research at U-M with the aim of developing potentially lifesaving drugs and disease treatments.

Another sign of U-M startup success came during the 2020 fiscal year, when Ascentage Pharma was listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. The biotech company is developing therapies for cancers, chronic hepatitis B, and age-related diseases.

U-M Tech Transfer just held its 20th annual — but first virtual — Celebrate Invention event Sept. 21-24. The annual event recognizes entrepreneurship and innovations from university researchers.

(Lead image: U-M robotics startup Refraction AI designs and operates networked fleets of autonomous robotic delivery vehicles.)

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