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A Pipeline of Talent

Jeff Mason: The URC gives Michigan a competitive advantage

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If the vehicle you drive today is safer and better-made than cars of the past, if you drive an electric, hybrid or E85 vehicle or one with a more fuel-efficient engine, chances are that Michigan’s three top research universities played a role in your car or truck’s development.

Michigan State University (MSU), the University of Michigan (U-M) and Wayne State University (WSU) formed the University Research Corridor (URC) to leverage their collective assets, encourage collaboration and increase business partnerships, with an overarching goal of accelerating statewide economic development. The URC is having a powerful net economic impact on Michigan’s economy – $15.2 billion according to recent data – and in perhaps in no industry is the URC’s  collective power to make significant contributions in innovation and talent more evident than in the automotive industry.

The numbers tell the story: From 2007 through 2011, the three major research universities spent more than $300 million on over 1,400 auto-related research projects. Some of this is basic research that allows innovation to happen faster. Other research involves working with specific companies and government sponsors to solve problems and assist in product development. Those efforts have helped Michigan’s auto industry surge back powerfully in recent years, and the more than 3,600 science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates the three universities produce each year are bringing new talent and energy to the field. Nearly 40 percent of those graduates hold advanced degrees.

Michigan automotive manufacturers and their suppliers account for 28 percent of all jobs in the U.S. automotive sector, with more than 136,000 Michigan residents employed in the industry. The URC universities have created and sustained a pool of talent that is attracting both domestic and international companies to locate their research centers here. The most significant contribution the URC universities make to the automotive industry is providing a steady stream of workers trained in rigorous scientific methods and practical problem-solving skills.

One measure of the URC’s vital importance to the auto industry is funding. Over the past five years, private industry funded 28 percent of all automotive research at the URC universities, nine times the average share of industry funding for all university R&D at these institutions. The remaining 72 percent of research was primarily funded by federal and state government agencies that have a stake in seeing less fuel consumption, cleaner emissions and better safety today and in the years ahead.

Nearly two-thirds of this research was done in engineering departments, while another 29 percent was done in special automotive and transportation research centers, such as U-M’s Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), MSU’s Composite Vehicle Research Center and WSU’s National Biofuels Energy Laboratory. Another 2.5 percent was done in medical and public health programs, while the remaining work was done in a variety of departments, including agricultural sciences.

Universities are critical to the automotive industry for the role they play in early stage research and in providing a vital talent pipeline. The partnering of universities and companies provides students an array of real-world challenges to research and solve, while allowing companies to leverage external expertise in new technical areas. We’re proud of the work being done at the URC universities to help the U.S. automotive industry continue to lead the world. A full report on the URC’s automotive research efforts can be found at urcmich.org.

Jeff Mason is executive director of the University Research Corridor