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Q&A: Physicist and Venture Capitalist Robert McMahan, President of Kettering University

November 10, 2019

Crain’s Detroit Business

Tom Henderson 

Dr. Robert McMahan, president of Kettering University since 2011, has a background in physics, venture capital — and art history.

How many presidents of top engineering schools majored in art history as undergraduates?

At least one, but likely not many more than that: Robert McMahan, who has been the president of Kettering University in Flint since 2011. The school was founded as General Motors Institute, an educational and training arm for the automaker.

Don’t let that art major fool you. McMahan earned a dual major from Duke University; the second major was in physics. He went on to get a Ph.D. in physics from Dartmouth and completed postdoctoral studies at the Harvard University-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He was a research professor in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Department of Physics and Astronomy from 1989 to 2010 and served as senior adviser for science and technology to the governor of North Carolina and as executive director of North Carolina’s Office of Science and Technology from 2003-2008.

He also founded a research company and became a venture capitalist.

Crain’s Detroit Business: You were a venture capitalist. Not many university presidents have a background in physics and venture capital. Robert McMahan:

I come from a long line of entrepreneurial physicists. I didn’t realize how lucky I was at the time, but people would come to dinner who would go on to win Nobel prizes. My father, Bob, and my uncle, Michael, helped found Control Laser, which later became Quantronix. They made large industrial lasers. As a kid, I was always walking through labs watching people burn holes in metal. I remember as a kid seeing a guy’s tie catch on fire from his laser. My dad and uncle developed an application for Xerox. They invented an ion laser based on a research tool that had high heat but was compact and usable in a commercial applications. Lasers then were an exotic technology but this company my father and uncle started, when laser printers came out, their company invented the lasers for that.

You used the word entrepreneurial. You founded your own R&D firm, McMahan Research Laboratories, in Cambridge in 1988.

The original business model was advanced imaging R&D. We worked with the Navy, we worked with NASA to build sensors. After I sold it to GretagMacbeth in 2000, I stayed with that company in an executive position for a few years, then joined In-Q-Tel. That was an interesting model. It was a created by the intelligence community as a nonprofit to foster technology for intelligence applications for the CIA and the National Security Agency. It came out of the recognition that private sector venture capital was often driving innovations faster than government agencies. We syndicated deals with traditional VC firms around the country to flesh a lot of technologies out. Every time you use a smartphone or use Google Maps, you’re using technology we fostered.

Kettering’s GM Mobility Research Center, opened in October 2018. The 21-acre proving grounds is built on the site of a former Chevrolet plant.

I went to high school with twins who went to GMI and on to long careers in the auto industry. I am well aware of the school’s reputation for turning out graduates with a strong practical background and time spent working in the private sector as they progress toward their degrees. Is there a focus on research as well as a practical engineering education?

We’re celebrating our centennial this year. The school was founded by people who shared a philosophy with Charles Kettering, who said if we taught pianists the same way we taught engineers, we’d make them study music theory for 12 years before we let them ever touch a piano. When we became private in 1982, we expanded the number of companies we worked with from one family of companies to 600 companies worldwide, across all domains. Not just auto but aerospace, biomedicine and finance. We have state-of-the-art research labs across the whole range of disciplines. We just opened an advanced research mobility center right in the middle of campus, the same size as the MCity mobility center at the University of Michigan. We are among the most successful universities in the country in attracting research funding. [Editor’s note: That adds up to $18.3 million from government, philanthropic and private-sector grants for 435 projects in the last seven fiscal years.]

I was surprised to find out Kettering doesn’t have a Technology Transfer Office.

We don’t operate on that model. Under the traditional model, the federal government pays big money for a university to do research. The university does the research, then licenses the technology to a company or to faculty or to a student. We don’t operate under that model. We work much more collaboratively with companies. Traditionally, a company pays, say, $1 million for research to solve a problem. The university comes back and says ‘We solved the problem.’ The company says, ‘Great, what is it?’ And the university says, ‘We can’t tell you. The university owns that.’ And the company says, ‘What in the blankety blank did I pay you for?’ That’s the National Science Foundation model. If we work with a company and they pay for research, the company owns it. And if one of our students works at a company and develops IP, the company owns it. We are not in the licensing game. We are in a partnership game that generates a lot of IP and creates huge opportunities for companies to work with us.

Kettering made surprising news in the world of university research when a study led by Harvard economist Raj Chetty, on behalf of the Equality of Opportunity Project at the Watson Institute at Brown University in Providence, R.I., was published in 2017.

The study was on patents granted per alumnus. No. 1 was Cal Tech, No. 2 was MIT. No. 3 was Harvey Mudd College. Kettering was No. 4. We were ahead of Stanford. We were ahead of Carnegie Mellon. The Economist called us to see who we were and what was going on.* It’s because of the relationship we have with our corporate partners. We host a dinner for Kettering alumni at the Detroit Athletic Club in conjunction with the Auto Show. I’ll ask about patents and it’s not unusual for those at my table to hold 100 patents.

*This is what The Economist wrote in an article on Dec. 4, 2017: “It should be no surprise that the colleges that produce the most inventors per student are MIT, CalTech and Harvey Mudd, three of America’s most competitive engineering schools. But again, factors beyond raw ability seem to matter. The college which produces the fourth-highest share of inventors in the data set is little-known Kettering University in Flint, Michigan — edging out brand-name institutions like Stanford and Carnegie Mellon. This despite the fact that their students enter with much lower SAT scores and parental wealth. Robert McMahan, Kettering’s president, who himself holds five patents, credits the university’s unique history (until 1982 it was part of General Motors and retains deep ties with the car industry) and its requirement that students repeatedly alternate between classrooms and job rotations.”