• Lauren Koski

MTRAC helps save Michigan Research from the Valley of Death

"Michigan has a lot of great schools and a lot of smart people, but good technologies and ideas were just dying on the vine," says Brad Martin, the Commercial Program Director for MTRAC for Life Sciences. Four years ago, the Michigan Economic Development Center created MTRAC (Michigan Translational Research and Commercialization), a grant program to stimulate both scientific impact and economic growth. Universities across Michigan are teeming with already government-funded research projects that are ready to take the next step into life-changing products. At the University of Michigan, that’s there Brad’s team comes in.

MTRAC administrators like Brad play an enormous role in the competition that awards these funds, but he attributes the further success of the program to the senior executives from the investment community. "They represent the first 'customer' for technology and innovation after it leaves the university, determining the potential real world value," says Brad. The reviews from this committee provide the vital feedback to MTRAC applicants for research teams to build upon established work and to find funding through smaller grant programs.

Brad knows that the senior executives and commercialization experts of the review committee don't have time to waste. To get their best insights, applicants have to show the committee that their research can take the next step beyond the lab. Often times, these researchers are mystified by this step. "The irony," says Brad, "is that if you ask them why they got into science, 9 times out of ten it's about helping patients and making a difference." Brad has used InfoReady Review to prompt applicants to think about the aspects of their project that will translate into a usable, impactful product. As Brad puts it, "commercialization is the way research makes a difference."

A few important Takeaways from Brad's experience with MTRAC:

1. Ask for the answers your reviewers want.

In this case, the MTRAC competition bridges the gap between researchers and their potential investors. Applicants are prompted to identify a need for their project, explain how the funds will be used, and how the commercial can benefit the community.

2. Track funded outcomes.

In the case of MTRAC, projects that are awarded funding take the step from idea to real-world product or service. Brad told us about a psychiatry app that can predict manic episodes for patients by analyzing vocal patterns, and a cell-based assay that can replace animal testing for cardiotoxicity. "We're seeing high success rates, with a $13 million return on a $5.5 million investment. The real success, though, is making a difference in patient's lives and creating jobs in local communities." Brad's team reports economic indicators for success, such as new created jobs created and spawned start-ups. Consider ways to track the outcomes of funded research and projects; it may give some insight into designing the competition and review process.

Big funding programs like MTRAC require heavy-duty solutions, like technology that can support all of the applicants and reviewers they need. With federal funding yet to be decided for 2018, it is crucial that competitions help important research translate into real-world life-saving tools.