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.”

Legislative Update: Brownfield Bills Will Spur Region’s Transformational Development Projects, Attract Talent

Earlier this week, the Michigan Senate approved legislation to expand the state’s Brownfield TIF Act (Senate Bills 111-115) to provide gap financing for large, transformational projects. Michigan’s growth and prosperity depends on attracting and retaining talent who seek vibrant urban places to live and work.  Development projects in our urban cores continue to face significant economic gaps, as market rents fail to support major ground-up construction or rehabilitation of large, distressed historic structures.

Passing this critical legislation will unlock billions in new investment in every corner of the state, including potential projects such as Arcadia Commons West in Kalamazoo, the Grand River Rapids Restoration project in Grand Rapids, and the Silverdome in Pontiac.

The Detroit Regional Chamber’s advocacy team continues to actively engage lawmakers on this issue and serves as a leading member of the MI Thrive coalition, supporting this key component of the region and state’s continued revitalization. The coalition consists of 40 community and economic development leaders and chambers of commerce across the state.

Congress Passes the Water Resources Development Act in its Final Vote of the Year

On Dec. 9, the U.S. Congress passed the Water Resources Development Act of 2016 prior to adjourning for the year. The legislation is highly supported by the Great Lakes Metro Chambers Coalition (GLMCC), in which the Detroit Regional Chamber is a member and Brad Williams, vice president of government relations for the Chamber also serves as the executive director.

The bill authorizes 25 critical Army Corps projects in 17 states, Michigan being one of them, and provides critical investment in the country’s aging drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, assists poor and disadvantaged communities in meeting public health standards under the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act, and promotes innovative technologies to address drought and other critical water resource needs.

The bill also responds to the drinking water crisis in Flint by providing emergency assistance to Flint and other similar communities across the country facing drinking water contamination.

The bill will now be sent to the President for signature.

Urban Entrepreneurship Symposium 2016 wraps up with record attendance, new level of community engagement

The Urban Entrepreneurship Initiative (UEI) is pleased to announce the successful completion of its third annual Urban Entrepreneurship Symposium (#UES2016). Held in Flint, Mich., from Oct. 19 to 21, the symposium had 495 registrants over the course of the three day event. The 2016 Symposium followed sold-out events in Detroit in 2015 and Ann Arbor in 2014 and convened entrepreneurs and thought leaders in business, academia, community organizations and government to facilitate business solutions that bring economic opportunity and quality of life improvements to Flint and other urban communities.

W. David Tarver, founder and president of the Urban Entrepreneurship Initiative, a Flint native and the chief event organizer, proclaimed the event an unqualified success.

“We engaged the Flint community at all levels this year, and that proved to be a key contributor to the event’s success,” Tarver said. “We were pleased to provide a forum for conversation, ideas and strategy, and to help Flint reimagine and rewrite its story to one of renewed spirit and business and entrepreneurial opportunity.”

Highlights of #UES2016 include:

• A series of pre-event “community pitches” gatherings that engaged residents where they live — at the library, churches, the bus station, downtown and many other locations — in a grass roots call for ideas that focused on making life better in Flint. Residents were encouraged to offer business ideas, community improvement suggestions, and even gripes.
• The Community Reception, an event kick-off that drew more than 100 residents, aspiring business entrepreneurs and community leaders to mingle, network and understand the importance of changing the city’s business culture to reignite sustainable growth.
• The 2016 Urban Infrastructure Challenge and the 2016 Urban Jobs Challenge, which provided young adults and college students with an opportunity to win award money and entrepreneurial guidance for business solutions to pressing jobs and infrastructure issues in Flint.
• A panel composed of local, state, and national experts, which addressed strategies for creating an “ecosystem” that supports sustainable growth by further developing existing businesses and growing startups.
• A compelling interview conducted by Tarver with Andrew R. Highsmith, author of Demolition Means Progress: Flint, Michigan, and the Fate of the American Metropolis.
• The Business Matrix reception at the Flint Farmers Market, which drew approximately 80 entrepreneurs and students – and the organizations that support them.
• A day-long series of workshops at the Mott Community College Regional Technology Center focused on essential knowledge for urban entrepreneurs, including business creation methods, creative finance strategies, e-commerce opportunities and techniques, and personal and business branding.

A post-#UES2016 survey of attendees elicited the following responses:

• “Valuable information for aspiring entrepreneurs, especially those with limited resources. Great inspiration for a city that is struggling so much.”

• “I loved the 1:1 conversation with the author on day 2 and found the kick-off event to be an inspiring way to set the tone for the full event.”

• “Friday was a very good ‘nuts & bolts’ day filled with practical advice and models. Thursday was also good in highlighting opportunities in various categories.”

“Urban entrepreneurship is business innovation that produces products, services, and jobs that improve the quality of life in urban communities,” Tarver said. “#UES2016 accomplished our primary goal of highlighting the importance of urban innovation in the context of a community that is at the “ground zero” of today’s urban crisis. Now, an inspired group of attendees are ready to put the knowledge, inspiration, and connections they received into action. This will be exciting to watch!”

Leading sponsors of #UES2016 were Mott Community College, University of Michigan – Flint School of Management, University of Michigan Center for Entrepreneurship, University of Michigan Innovate Blue, SkyPoint Ventures, Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

A Flint native, Tarver holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Michigan and also lectures in the U-M Center for Entrepreneurship. In 1983, at age 30, he launched Telecom Analysis Systems, Inc., a telecommunications instrumentation business, and sold it in 1995 for $30 million. Working as group president for the company’s buyer, Tarver then spearheaded development of a telecommunications group with a market value of more than $2 billion. He left that business in 1999 to devote more time to family and community service, ultimately returning to Southeast Michigan in 2007.

About the Urban Entrepreneurship Initiative
The Urban Entrepreneurship Initiative, founded by W. David Tarver, a technology entrepreneur, Michigan native and author of “Proving Ground: A Memoir,” is a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation offering programming and resources that encourage, facilitate and enable the development of for-profit businesses that explicitly and intentionally address the needs of urban communities.

Keynote speakers for Oct. 19-21 Urban Entrepreneurship Symposium focus on economic revival in Flint; registration is underway

W. David Tarver, founder and president of The Urban Entrepreneurship Initiative (UEI) and chief organizer of the third annual Urban Entrepreneurship Symposium, to be held in Flint from Oct. 19 to 21, announced keynote speakers for the event. They are Andrew R. Highsmith, Ph.D., author of Demolition Means Progress, and Jeffery Robinson, Ph.D., an urban economic development expert from Rutgers University.

Registration for the event is underway at www.urbanei.org.

Dr. Robinson is an award-winning business school professor, international speaker, and entrepreneur. Since 2008, he has been a leading faculty member at Rutgers University Business School where he is academic director and senior fellow at the Center for Urban Entrepreneurship & Economic Development. The Center is a unique interdisciplinary venue for innovative thinking and research on entrepreneurial activity and economic development in urban environments.

Dr. Robinson’s research explores how business practices and entrepreneurship can be used to impact societal issues. He is particularly concerned about community and economic development issues for urban metropolitan areas in the United States and abroad. In 2007, he was selected as the recipient of the Aspen Institute’s Social Impact Faculty Pioneer Award for his research, service and teaching activities at the intersection of business and society. In 2011, his course, Urban Entrepreneurship & Economic Development, was recognized as a model of Innovative Entrepreneurship Education by the U.S. Association of Small Business and Entrepreneurship.

Dr. Highsmith is the author of Demolition Means Progress: Flint, Michigan, and the Fate of the American Metropolis, one of the most comprehensive works yet written on the history of inequality and metropolitan development in modern America. The book was published in July 2015 by the University of Chicago Press and won the 2016 American Historical Association Pacific Coast Branch Book Award. Demolition Means Progress uses the case of Flint to explain how the perennial quest for urban renewal contributed to mass suburbanization, racial and economic division, deindustrialization, and political fragmentation. Dr. Highsmith is Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. A former Flint resident, he received his Ph.D. in History from the University of Michigan in 2009. His doctoral dissertation won the 2009 John Reps Prize for Best Dissertation in American Planning History from the Society for American City and Regional Planning History and the Urban History Association’s Best Dissertation Award for 2009-10. He is a specialist in modern American history, urban history and public policy.

UEI founder David Tarver will present the keynote address at the Flint Community Program and Reception, which will take place on Wed. Oct. 19 from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. at the Mott Community College Event Center. A Flint native, Tarver holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Michigan and also lectures in U-M’s Center for Entrepreneurship. In 1983, at age 30, he launched Telecom Analysis Systems, Inc., a telecommunications instrumentation business, and sold it in 1995 for $30 million. Working as group president for the company’s buyer, Tarver then spearheaded development of a telecommunications group with a market value of more than $2 billion. He left that business in 1999 to devote more time to family and community service, ultimately returning to Southeast Michigan in 2007. He is the author of “Proving Ground: A Memoir,” chronicling his childhood in Flint, his educational pursuits and his entrepreneurial journey.

The Urban Entrepreneurship Symposium convenes entrepreneurs and thought leaders in business, academia, community organizations and government to facilitate innovative business solutions that bring economic opportunity and quality of life improvements to urban communities. Major sponsors for #UES2016 include University of Michigan-Flint School of Management, Mott Community College, U-M Center for Entrepreneurship, U-M Innovate Blue, Skypoint Ventures, and Michigan Economic Development Corporation. The complete list of sponsors can be found at http://www.urbanei.org/ues-2016-sponsors/.

New to this year’s symposium are the “Give Us What You Got” community pitch sessions that elicit business ideas, community improvement suggestions, and gripes from everyday Flint residents. This year’s event will also showcase the finals of two business model competitions – the Urban Infrastructure Challenge and the Urban Jobs Challenge. Winners will be selected and prizes awarded during the event.

Details on Urban Entrepreneurship Symposium 2016
 When: #UES2016 begins on Wednesday Oct. 19 with an evening Community Program and Reception. Thursday is the Conference Program, which will consist of speakers and panel discussions, and will be followed by a “Business Matrix” networking reception at the Flint Farmers Market. Friday’s “Accelerate U” Seminars Program will include compelling presentations on topics of great interest to actual and aspiring entrepreneurs.
 Where: The Wednesday Community Program will take place at the Mott Community College Event Center. The Thursday Conference Program will be held at the U-M Northbank Center in downtown Flint, followed by the “Business Matrix” reception at the Flint Farmers Market. The Friday “Accelerate U” Seminars Program will take place at the Mott Community College Regional Technology Center. See the UEI web site for details.
 Cost: The Wednesday night community reception is free, but pre-registration required. Registration cost for the Thursday programs, including the Conference and Business Matrix Reception, is $25.00. Registration for the Friday Seminars Program is $25.00.
 Registration: advance registration is required; purchase tickets online at www.urbanei.org.
 Event questions: for general questions about the event, please email info@urbanei.org.

About the Urban Entrepreneurship Initiative
The Urban Entrepreneurship Initiative, founded by W. David Tarver, a technology entrepreneur, Michigan native and author of “Proving Ground: A Memoir,” is a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation offering programming and resources that encourage, facilitate and enable the development of for-profit businesses that explicitly and intentionally address the needs of urban communities.

Urban Entrepreneurship Initiative announces board of directors

The Urban Entrepreneurship Initiative (UEI), a Mich.-based 501(c) (3) non-profit corporation established in 2015 and offering programming and resources that encourage, facilitate and enable the development of for-profit business solutions to address the needs of urban communities, announces Reggie Barnett, Fred Hall, Karen Lopez and Maria Woodruff-Wright have been appointed to the UEI Board of Directors. The announcement was made by UEI founder and Board President, W. David Tarver.

“I am pleased to formally welcome these individuals, so accomplished in their respective fields of business and law, to the UEI board,” Tarver said. “We look forward to growing the organization through their continued guidance and appreciate the individual and collective knowledge and experience they bring to the table as we crystalize the mission of UEI.”

• Reggie Barnett, Treasurer, most recently served as president and owner of WRN Inc., a provider of business telecommunications networking solutions. He was previously a senior executive at IBM. Barnett holds a law degree and an MBA from Duke University and an undergraduate degree in economics from the University of Notre Dame. He is a resident of Bloomfield Hills.
• Fred Hall, Vice-President, is concurrently president of H&P Protective Services and owner of NovaTech Computer Services, Inc. In addition to serving as UEI’s vice-president, Hall heads the board’s development committee. He is a lifelong resident of Detroit.
• Karen Lopez, Secretary, has a private law practice in Flint. She previously served as Vice President for External Affairs & Governance for Hurley Medical Center and Chief Legal Officer for the City of Flint. She holds a B.A. and M.A. from Michigan State University and received her law degree from Georgetown University Law Center. She is a Flint native and current resident.
• Maria Woodruff-Wright, Director, currently serves as CFO and Vice President of Operations for the Skillman Foundation. She holds a B.S. from Northwestern University School of Engineering and an MBA from the Ross School of Business – University of Michigan. After graduating from U-M, she founded and sold a company dedicated to providing culturally diverse products for children. Woodruff-Wright was also President of her family business, Expressway Ford, Inc. She is a native of Detroit.

W. David Tarver, a Birmingham resident, is a Flint native who holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Michigan and also lectures in U-M’s Center for Entrepreneurship. In October, Tarver will receive the 2016 University of Michigan College of Engineering Distinguished Service Award.

In 1983, at age 30, Tarver launched Telecom Analysis Systems, Inc., a telecommunications instrumentation business, and sold it in 1995 for $30 million. Working as group president for the company’s buyer, he then spearheaded development of a telecommunications group with a market value of more than $2 billion. Tarver left that business in 1999 to devote more time to family and community service, including founding in 2000 the Red Bank Education and Development Initiative (RBEDI) in Red Bank, N.J., a community-based non-profit creating new opportunities and increasing academic performance for the children of Red Bank. RBEDI was credited with helping to increase Red Bank students’ proficiency rate on the N.J. eighth grade performance assessment test from 25% in 2001 to 60% in 2004. He ultimately returned to Southeast Michigan in 2007 and started the Urban Entrepreneurship Initiative in 2014, which was recognized as a 501(c) (3) non-profit corporation in 2015.

Separately, under the direction of the board, UEI will hold its third annual Urban Entrepreneurship Symposium Oct. 19 to 21 in Flint, Mich. The 2016 Symposium (#UES2016) follows sold-out events in Detroit in 2015 and Ann Arbor in 2014. The Urban Entrepreneurship Symposium convenes entrepreneurs and thought leaders in business, academia, community organizations and government to facilitate business solutions that bring economic opportunity and quality of life improvements to urban communities. For information about the Urban Entrepreneurship Symposium 2016, please contact info@urbanei.org.

About the Urban Entrepreneurship Initiative

The Urban Entrepreneurship Initiative, founded by W. David Tarver, a technology entrepreneur, Michigan native and author of “Proving Ground: A Memoir,” is a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation offering programming and resources that encourage, facilitate and enable the development of for-profit businesses that explicitly and intentionally address the needs of urban communities. Learn more here.

Andrew R. Highsmith, author of ground-breaking book about Flint, to speak at Urban Entrepreneurship Symposium 2016

W. David Tarver, founder and president of The Urban Entrepreneurship Initiative (UEI) and chief organizer of the third annual Urban Entrepreneurship Symposium, to be held in Flint from Oct. 19 to 21 in Flint, announced that Andrew R. Highsmith, author of Demolition Means Progress, will speak at the event on Oct. 20. The session will consist of an extended interview with Highsmith, conducted by Tarver.

Highsmith is Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. A former Flint resident, he received his Ph.D. in History from the University of Michigan in 2009. His doctoral dissertation won the 2009 John Reps Prize for Best Dissertation in American Planning History from the Society for American City and Regional Planning History and the Urban History Association’s Best Dissertation Award for 2009-10. He is a specialist in modern American history, urban history and public policy. Demolition Means Progress: Flint, Michigan, and the Fate of the American Metropolis, was published in July 2015 by the University of Chicago Press. The book won the 2016 American Historical Association Pacific Coast Branch Book Award. In addition to the book, Highsmith has published scholarly articles in the Journal of Urban History, the American Journal of Education, Environmental Justice, the Teachers College Record, and the Journal of Policy History. Highsmith currently resides in Irvine, California, with his wife and three children.

UEI founder Tarver first became acquainted with Highsmith earlier this year after hearing him interviewed about the Flint water crisis on WDET Public Radio in Detroit. He subsequently bought and read Demolition Means Progress and immediately felt compelled to invite Highsmith to speak at #UES2016.

“Demolition Means Progress should be required reading for anyone who aspires to do economic development work in Flint or other American cities that have experienced industrial decline,” Tarver said. “It’s an imminently readable book that conveys an understanding of how Flint became what it is today, and that history suggests the paths we might take to revitalize the city, or not.”

The Urban Entrepreneurship Symposium convenes entrepreneurs and thought leaders in business, academia, community organizations and government to facilitate business solutions that bring economic opportunity and quality of life improvements to urban communities. Sponsors for #UES2016 include Diplomat, SkyPoint Ventures, the Flint and Genesee Chamber of Commerce, Mott Community College and several units of the University of Michigan, including Innovate Blue, The Center for Entrepreneurship, the Center for Social Impact at the Ross School of Business and the University of Michigan-Flint School of Management.

New to this year’s symposium are two business challenge competitions offering monetary awards and professional guidance to the winning teams: The Urban Infrastructure Challenge and the Urban Jobs Challenge. Details to apply for the business challenge competitions are available via the UEI website.

Details on Urban Entrepreneurship Symposium 2016
 When: #UES2016 kicks off Wednesday Oct. 19 with an evening program, and runs through Friday, Oct. 21, 2016; the Thursday session will begin at 8:00 a.m. and end (following a business networking reception) at 7:30 p.m. Friday’s session will commence at 8:00 a.m. and end mid-afternoon.
 Where: work sessions, receptions and seminars will take place at several Flint venues: the Mott Community College Event Center, the Mott Community College Regional Tech Center, the University of Michigan-Flint Northbank Center and the Flint Farmers Market. Details are on the UEI website.
 Cost: The Wednesday night community reception is free (pre-registration required). Registration cost for the full Thursday work sessions is $25.00. Registration for access to all Friday seminars is $25.00.
 Registration: advance registration is required; purchase tickets online at www.urbanei.org.
 Sponsors: For sponsorship information, please call Urban Entrepreneurship Initiative at (313) 457-2050 or email info@urbanei.org.

 Event questions: for general questions about the event, please email info@urbanei.org.

About the Urban Entrepreneurship Initiative

The Urban Entrepreneurship Initiative, founded by W. David Tarver, a technology entrepreneur, Michigan native and author of “Proving Ground: A Memoir,” is a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation offering programming and resources that encourage, facilitate and enable the development of for-profit businesses that explicitly and intentionally address the needs of urban communities. Learn more here.