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July 29, 2019

Foundation takes ideas from lab to marketplace

Since its founding in the early 1970s, the MSU Foundation has been a beehive of activity, bringing together the worlds of higher education and economic development, tech transfer, licensing, patenting and all the other components that help keep the university’s research machine running smoothly.

The foundation actually came to be in 1973, founded under the watch of former President Clifton Wharton. Things really got rolling in 1978, when royalties began coming in for cisplatin and carboplatin, two cancer-fighting drugs that were discovered by former MSU researchers Barnett Rosenberg, Loretta VanCamp and Thomas Krigas.

It’s the income from those royalties that allows the foundation to offer grants throughout campus: Strategic Partnership Grants, Capacity Building Grants and the Humanities and Arts Research Program, to name a few.

It also gives it the opportunity, in close partnership with the MSU Innovation Center, to fund programs that focus on economic development, including via the foundation’s subsidiaries: Spartan Innovations, which focuses on venture creation; Red Cedar Ventures (venture investment); and the University Corporate Research Park, which focuses on real estate, placemaking and startup incubation.

“Traditionally, the goals of the university are educating students, conducting research and community outreach,” MSU Foundation Director David Washburn said. “But over the last few years, a new goal was adopted — economic development through the commercialization of intellectual property created by faculty, staff and students. And that’s where we come in.”

Basically, the MSU Foundation’s mission is to move MSU’s technologies from the lab to the marketplace to improve lives and communities locally, regionally and around the world. And this all begins with the research conducted by staff, faculty and students. 

Every year, about 175 new inventions spring forth from these folks. Washburn noted that number is a bit below the mean when compared to other top research universities in the country, a number he hopes to see increased.

These inventions are presented to MSU Technologies, where they are screened, assessed, protected, marketed and licensed to commercial organizations that will further develop the technologies. On average, maybe 20 are considered to have startup potential.

Those 20 or so are then forwarded to Spartan Innovations, whose job it is to provide the educational and financial support necessary to turn MSU research technologies into successful Michigan businesses and spur entrepreneurship in the state’s economy.

“It’s a big funnel,” Washburn said. “About 175 proposals go into it and maybe five startups a year come out of it.”

In addition to helping these scientist/entrepreneurs get their inventions licensed, patented and off to a global marketplace, the foundation also helps many of these researchers get their start. For example, in 2018 the foundation awarded $9.5 million to the university, its faculty and researchers.

This includes funding for MSU Foundation Professors, faculty members who are recognized leaders in their fields. These faculty are from a wide swath of disciplines, everything from chemistry to engineering to communications arts to the fine arts. Awardees retain the title of MSU Foundation Professor for the duration of their service at MSU and typically receive scholarly support for the first five years after receiving the award.

A great example of a project supported by the foundation is an invention by Rob Zondervan, a student in the College of Osteopathic Medicine’s DO/PhD program. He had noticed that sometimes surgeons would take out their smartphone to access information that may be critical to the procedure they are performing. Zondervan’s question: Are these phones sterile enough for the operating room?

His idea was a simple one. Develop a clear plastic case in which to enclose the phone, plastic that can be scrubbed and sterilized prior to surgery. Zondervan is now the CEO of SteriDev, LLC, his Lansing-based company that developed the technology, which
they call CleanCase. For more information on the project, visit

Another example: Bruno Basso is one of the 38 faculty members with the title MSU Foundation Professor. An agricultural scientist, Basso uses drones equipped with cameras and sensors to evaluate crop growth, yield production, nitrogen levels and other information pertinent to today’s farmer. Read more about Basso’s work at

The MSU Foundation maintains its autonomy, but obviously works quite closely with the university. As Washburn put it: “We are strategically aligned, legally separate.”

Its work is overseen by a board of directors, which includes representatives from MSU administration and faculty, as well as private business.

By: Tom Oswald