Scott Olson came to the University of Michigan Medical Innovation Center in August 2011 with opportunity in mind.


“We have an amazing research engine,” he says of the University of Michigan. “We spend almost $1.3 billion a year in research dollars and have great potential to put out many more medical innovations.”

Olson has spent much of his career helping companies grow, especially in life sciences. He has been a founder or executive of eight start-ups and worked at Spark advising entrepreneurs and overseeing the Michigan Pre-Seed Capital Fund.

As managing director of the Medical Innovation Center, he hopes to nurture more innovations on their way through the University and into the world. But success doesn’t just mean more patents and spin-outs. It will be measured by improvements to human health — and fostering a more inter-connected, collaborative culture on campus and across innovation centers in the region.

We spoke to him about the research and innovation process and what it means to be messy.

URC: What does the U-M Medical Innovation Center do, and how does it change the traditional approach to innovation and entrepreneurship at medical schools?

Scott Olson: I’m not sure there is a “traditional” approach to innovation and entrepreneurship at medical schools. My observation is that there are innovative faculty and students, but the traditional role is focused on educating medical professionals and providing excellent clinical care.

We’re fortunate at U-M to have an integrated health system where the medical school and hospital system are together. The medical school ranks in the top ten nationally and the top three for funding from the National Institutes for Health. Our faculty members are at the tops of their fields and frequently identify important yet unmet needs, or opportunities to improve things. This is where the spark of innovation often begins.

Historically, in such situations a faculty member might reach out to the engineering school, or the office of technology transfer. But there were not resources in place to give the guidance to faculty on how to develop solutions to the problems, or how to determine if a concept could become a product. That’s the gap that the MIC was formed to fill.

We provide training and assistance to medical innovators on their own product ideas. We use the concept of “experiential learning” to provide just the right information for the stage of the project. Through our own resources, which include a sophisticated design & prototyping shop, and others across campus, we not only help develop an idea into a product, but also teach innovation tools for future concepts.

We train in a more formal manner also, through our Medical Innovation Fellowship. This program brings together a team of four to five post graduates from medicine, engineering, business, law, public health and other disciplines, trains the team in both innovation process and a medical domain, and guides it in developing solutions to unmet needs. This year, two physicians with MBA degrees and two PhD engineers are studying ophthalmology. They’re in the early prototyping stages of the process now.

We put the Fellows into a field they’re unfamiliar with and ask them to think as they’ve been trained. The power of team coming together with different perspectives is higher than any individual, even a skilled innovator, working by him or herself. The first cohort of the Fellowship program founded a company — Tangent Medical. After the program, they took advantage of resources at Ann Arbor Spark, connected to the local angel network, have taken on more and more money and have now raised close to $20 million. They’ve received FDA approval, and they’re launching it this quarter.

URC: Can you walk us through the Medical Innovation Center’s innovation process?

SO: The innovation process starts with observation. We put the Innovation Fellows in a clinical environment — anywhere the patient is — and we teach them how to observe. We’re not really trying to give them an answer — we’re giving them the skills to observe for the unmet need. From the need, we go through a process: How do you make sense of what you’ve observed? How do you prioritize the need and create a hypothesis for how you’ll characterize the needs and come to a solution?

When we deal with a faculty member it’s a little different. They’ve often been working in the field for many years and they’ve had to deal with something that’s not as good as it could be. We always back them up to the need, and what they’ve observed.

One of the problems that inventors face — some overcome it, some don’t — is that they think they’ve created the best mousetrap. There’s a tendency among people to keep it close to your vest because it’s your idea, and you want to develop it. Companies broadly are beginning to move away from that — I hope they are, anyway — and expose it to users earlier in the process. Throughout this process — from observation, to need, to opportunities, to solutions — you need input from the people who’ll be using the device. How does it suit the customer? Let’s talk to some other doctors and stick it in their hands and see what they say. You get that feedback. Some of it is simple and obvious. Sometimes the original inventor never would have thought about it.

Ultimately, the Fellow or the Faculty member may say, “This is so good, we’ll make a company out of it.” If they don’t, that doesn’t mean it’s not a success. If it has an impact on human health — that’s what we’re trying to achieve.

URC: How do you collaborate with other centers of innovation in the region? 

SO: I worked with university folks for my entire career in Ann Arbor, so I bring those relationship with me and make sure they continue. We’re looking for opportunities to do things collaboratively.

In a good-sized university, it’s hard enough to know what’s going on in the building next to you, let alone what’s going on across campus, or at Wayne State, or Michigan State. One thing we try to do is raise awareness as we come across it. If we find someone working in a particular area, and we know of something similar going on at Wayne State, we can make an introduction. We do that between the colleges here, as well. We had a researcher from ophthalmology come to us with a promising new drug, but a side effect was that you had to monitor the pressure inside the eyeball. We knew someone in one of the engineering centers who was developing a pressure sensor — so there’s a collaboration begun. We try to facilitate those introductions — once they happen, they’re outstanding.

The Henry Ford Innovation Institute is emerging and doing a lot of the same things we are, but with a different flavor. We’re in the exploration stages there, trying to figure out what we could do with them. As we’re getting better and more mature internally, I think it will be natural to begin to take advantage of the University Research Corridor, the Michigan Corporate Relations Network, and to have more and more statewide conversations with people who are in this space.

What’s on the horizon for the Medical Innovation Center in 2013? Is a global innovation alliance still in the works?

SO: This year we are piloting a global health innovation fellowship. We had an M.D./Ph.D. from Peking University and a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from U-M who’s worked for several years in a spin-out. We trained them in the innovation process, selected gerontology as their domain — the doctor has received no training in geriatric medicine — and then we sent them to China for months. We basically said, “Here’s a ticket. Good luck!”

It was an intense, immersive experience. They visited some of the largest hospitals in Beijing, went to Shanghai and some smaller cities, met with investors, met with faculty and clinicians and hospital administrators — drinking from a firehose is probably an understatement. It was very much a learning process for them and for us — we know our model, and what’s important, but we have to learn on the ground how to do it. They’ll go back for a return visit and they expect to come out of it with an idea that can be implemented, produced, supplied and distributed in China. It takes the dramatic challenges of our standard innovation process and multiplies them by a lot.

In general, there’s more and more awareness across campus of the importance of entrepreneurship, and innovation. We have a lot of student traction and student attention, especially among undergrads. It’s not as clear with graduate students, research and doctoral students, and faculty members: What is that interest in innovation going to look like three years from now? What is clear is we’re bringing together teams across campus to understand what each other is doing and to begin to plan for the next few years.

There’s a natural messiness, which I love — people are trying different things. I could stay messy for a long time. A lot of people don’t like it, but it’s supposed to be inefficient — it’s creative, experimental, and a lot of things are going to be set aside after we try them. We’re learning as an organization, as multiple organizations coming together and talking about those learnings, and out of that we’ll identify supports we need, superstructure, how to maintain our independence and yet work very well.