After Quiet Start, WSU President Wilson Makes Waves

After Quiet Start, WSU President Wilson Makes Waves
May 15, 2014/Crains Detroit Business

By Tom Henderson

At a meeting I had with Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson six or eight weeks ago, he told me he had big things in mind for the school’s technology transfer office, and that he was awaiting word on whether the first-class candidate he had in mind would agree to become the school’s vice president of research.

In April, he landed his VP, Stephen Lanier, currently the associate provost for research and a professor of cell and molecular pharmacology and experimental therapeutics at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, S.C. He will assume his new post on June 16.

Wednesday, the school announced two big things involving tech transfer. Joan Dunbar, who heads up the office, will now have two heavyweight veterans of technology commercialization on board to help her find viable technologies for commercialization on campus and then spin them off to the private sector, where they can generate jobs, revenue and, last but not least, taxes.

John Shallman is senior director of licensing, and Kenneth Massey is senior director of venture development. Both of them are the kinds of hires, with extensive track records and reputations, that WSU wouldn’t have been able to recruit before Wilson’s arrival here last summer.

Nothing against Allan Gilmour, a brilliant man who had a wonderful and storied career at Ford Motor Co., but who was clearly a place holder during his stint as president. He was never going to be able to attract the kind of talent to Wayne State that suddenly is willing to come.

For example, Shallman has more than 24 years of experience in technology commercialization, the last six as director of commercialization at Beaumont Health System. Before that, he was development manager of the life sciences sector at the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

Massey has 28 years combined of biomedical research and business experience in academic, pharmaceutical and biotech areas.

Most recently, he was managing director of MicroDose Life Sciences LLC of Farmington Hills and its associated venture capital fund, LifeLine Ventures. He has also been an assistant professor of anesthesiology and pharmacology at the University of Michigan and worked at Pfizer Inc. on several drug development programs.

MicroDose was formed in 2007 by Pfizer employees after it announced it was closing its Ann Arbor operations.

Manoj Bhargava, the CEO of Farmington Hills-based Living Essentials LLC, the maker of the popular 5-Hour Energy drink, backed LifeLine Ventures with an investment of $100 million. And may, now, presumably be willing to back some of the future spinoffs Shallman and Massey help Dunbar create.

My, how far the school has come in a year. Last May, I was researching a story on the tech transfer office at Wayne State and called a high ranking official at the MEDC whom I trusted to try to get a feel for how state folks viewed Wayne State’s position in the economic development ecosystem. My timing was perfect, said the source, who had just come out of a meeting with Gov. Rick Snyder, the topic of which was: How to get WSU to become a viable, important part of all the development going on in Detroit in general and Midtown in particular.

The source walked me through minutes of a board meeting of the Michigan Strategic Fund, helping me read between the lines to see what the state really thought of things in Wayne's tech transfer office and in the office of the vice president of research.

At that meeting, WSU had been awarded a grant of $100,000, something school officials had been trumpeting as proof of progress. The proof was anything but, said my source. Instead, it was proof of the lack of progress.

What really happened was WSU had applied for nearly $1.2 million from an MEDC program called the Michigan Translational Research and Commercialization Program, modeled after a program at the University of Michigan in conjunction with the Miami-based Coulter Foundation that has been successful at commercializing research.

Wayne State wanted the grant for a project by Peter Littrup, director of radiology research at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute and co-founder of Plymouth Township-based Delphinus Medical Technologies Inc., a Karmanos spinoff that makes machines that use 3-D ultrasound imaging to detect breast cancer.

Littrup is a star, but no matter. The Strategic Fund awarded only $100,000 of the $1.2 million, to be used not by Littrup but for what was termed a “gap assessment.” The money would pay for Tom Daly, a veteran of tech transfer who has consulted with other universities and Argonne National Laboratory, a research lab run for the Department of Energy by the University of Chicago, to come to town and figure out what Wayne State’s tech transfer office was doing right and what it was doing wrong and what steps it needed to take for WSU to be able pull its weight as one of the state’s top three major research institutions.

Wilson has quietly and tenaciously investigated a number of troublesome issues at the school since he replaced Gilmour in August. He early on realized he needed to beef up tech transfer, and he has.

Monday, Crain’s reported that engineering professor Greg Auner had been restored to good graces by Wilson and given new and better lab space after a long dispute with other university officials. Moreover, he had been put under the auspices of Valerie Parisi, dean of the School of Medicine, and removed from reporting to engineering Dean Farshad Fotouhi.

Today, The Detroit News reported on a lawsuit by WSU against Robert Mentzer, M.D., the former dean of the medical school who is a tenured professor in the departments of surgery and physiology, with an annual salary of $279,370. WSU claims Mentzer lives in Virginia, does minimal work here and does more work at San Diego State University.

“The days of getting a full-time paycheck and not doing your work and living somewhere else … are long gone,” The News reported Wilson as saying.

“For the last few years, Dr. Mentzer has been double-dipping," said Matt Lockwood, the school’s director of public relations. “This double-dipping is theft and we felt we had not choice but to address it.”

Mentzer has filed a countersuit, asking for an apology and a retraction of the lawsuit.

When told that events of the last few days show Wilson to be the kind of active president many were hoping for, Lockwood told me, and I’m paraphrasing: Stay tuned, there’s more to come.

By the way, somehow Wilson still finds the time to get in the occasional 100-mile bike ride. There's a reason he looks so trim. He works at it.



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