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Entrepreneurs unleash partnerships at university

Kettering University is taking an increasingly entrepreneurial approach to engineering education that also is benefiting the community that surrounds it.

Nowhere is that more apparent than at Kettering's new Innovation Center, a $3.2-million project that is incubating several small businesses — including Swedish Biogas International AB, which is working with the university to create a clean-energy model and demonstration site in Michigan.

The Mott Foundation provided $541,966  to match funds from the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation to construct the multi-tenant laboratory and office facility.

The center is using a "triple helix" model for innovation — linking university, government and industry resources to generate new knowledge, technology and products.

"We're working to create employers for the next century," said Neil Sheridan, director of TechWorks, a comprehensive technology business acceleration approach that leverages the resources of the university, including the Innovation Center, and other partners. TechWorks offers training, coaching, networking and referrals to entrepreneurs in the classroom and in the community. It is the most recent iteration of the technology innovation and development role that Kettering has played since its earliest years.

"It's our job to bring people and resources together," said Sheridan, who believes that Michigan — and the Flint area in particular — has the infrastructure it takes to assist local entrepreneurs — be they engineers, scientists, inventors, faculty or students — in creating companies, jobs and prosperity.

"Michigan has a great quality of life. And in Flint, you have this wonderful set of universities, an existing supplier base, state and local governments that understand the need to diversify the economy, and the creativity needed to drive new business," he said.

To date, more than 200 people have graduated from TechWorks commercialization training and more than 10 companies are in various stages of commercializing a high-tech product.

"It's our job to incubate these projects and grow them into regional employers by linking them to the development and marketing training they need, or by connecting them with the Michigan Small Business and Technology Development Center housed here on campus."

Kettering's focus on entrepreneurship permeates its 90-acre campus, the result of university efforts to diversify its curriculum, its co-op placement partnerships and its hiring policies for new faculty, such as Jennifer Aurandt, Ph.D. who has a passion for research with immediate applications for business and industry.

Swedish Biogas: A transformational partnership

Aurandt, a professor in Kettering's chemistry and biochemistry department, works with Swedish Biogas International AB, one of the first tenants to move into Kettering's Innovation Center. The company has been operating a renewable energy facility at Flint's wastewater treatment plant since 2008.

To obtain the technical expertise needed to maintain its industrial-size anaerobic digesters, which are used to convert waste into energy, Swedish Biogas is collaborating with Kettering and Aurandt to conduct research and testing.

"Thanks to the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, I was able to offer three students co-op positions, including Tiffany Snow," Aurandt said.

"She was instrumental in helping me set up the first of the small digesters that we use for our research. As a biochemistry major, she's working on a project that will help us figure out which enzymes are most efficient in promoting methane production, which can speed up the gas production process."

There are now five "mini" digesters being fed and powered by a variety of biowastes, each with a set of particular challenges that must be worked out before qualifying for commercial use.

"To build a big reactor, Swedish Biogas needs the data we gather from these small reactors," Aurandt said. "For my students, it's an opportunity to be involved in the type of research that's usually available only at the graduate level."

Currently, three chemistry and engineering students share two co-op positions in the lab.

Ben Wagnor, an electrical engineering major, is developing a continuous monitoring system for the anaerobic digesters, using the research to complete his senior thesis.

"Monitoring the energy consumption of the reactors has to be done by hand on a regular schedule. It's very time-consuming," Aurandt said. "Ben's project will make it possible for us to use computers to monitor the flow and maintain a constant record of reactor output."

The idea for the thesis emerged as a result of cross-conversations between departments. Each day, Aurandt says, the team discusses what members are working on and what problems they need help resolving.

"When you live together in a lab — along with an industrial partner — it changes your mindset."

This type of collaborative interaction is difficult to replicate, says Aurandt. But Kettering's push to become less "siloed" between departments and its willingness to partner with for-profit companies through its co-op program is helping students gain practical experience before they graduate — something both graduate schools and employers are looking for on applications.

"We're focusing more and more on this type of translational work — research that has immediate application in terms of new products and new ideas," said Robert L. Simpson, Kettering's provost and vice president for academic affairs. "We want to become the best experiential learning institution in the world."

Changing a campus culture

Kettering once was known for its connections with General Motors and the automotive industry, which remains a key partner in the university's cooperative education program. But today it has diversified its base, offering co-op placements in such fields as life sciences, pharmaceuticals, bioengineering, acoustics, optics, nanotechnology, alternative energy, aerospace, food processing and logistics.

"We have been strategic in trying to place ourselves where there is opportunity," Simpson said.

The university's long-term success depends upon its ability to embrace change, make its campus more accessible to the surrounding community and employ faculty who can guide students in the creation of innovative processes, services and products, he says.

To some extent, the students themselves have been a driving force behind the university's decision to embrace a more entrepreneurial attitude.

"Our students are tremendously creative. They are partnering with local hospitals in projects focusing on orthopedic rehabilitation, proton-beam therapy and simulation training. We have another group of students working with a local nonprofit to extend the growing season of their urban farm," Simpson said.

"Our goal is to encourage an entrepreneurial mindset so that — in addition to a successful classroom experience, which is paramount — our students will gain an understanding about how their research connects with the world outside campus and, even more specifically, with the Flint-area community.

"We recognize that we have a role to play in Flint. We understand that our long-term success depends on building regional collaboration, developing an ethos of giving back to the community and cultivating our own entrepreneurial spirit as an institution.

"We are committed to positioning Kettering as an integral part of the region's economic recovery," said Simpson.

(Note: This report is provided as a service to our readers and a service to the group or individual mentioned in the release. Usually, only minor editing is done. The group or individual is responsible for all information provided.)

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