At the end of May, after 20 years at the University, Ken Nisbet will be retiring from U-M Tech Transfer. Since he assumed the leadership position in 2001, U-M Tech Transfer has made significant progress and now U-M is considered to be among the top ten of all universities in tech transfer performance. We caught up with Ken to ask him a few questions:
IMPACT: Ken, what are your thoughts about your University career after so many years of service?
KEN: It’s been the honor of my life to have served the University of Michigan, my alma mater and an institution that makes us all so proud. Being able to work with so many talented people with the demonstrated support of our University leadership has made this a dream job for me. It will be hard to leave my exceptional tech transfer team and to see less of so many wonderful partners inside and outside the University. Over the years, together we have made great strides in performance and effectiveness, and some wonderful friendships have evolved. But now I would like to have a little flexibility, to try some new things and look for opportunities to give back to my community. I’ve been given advice to take some time to unwind before making these decisions, so time will tell what is around the corner for me.
IMPACT: Can you compare the environment within the University and in our region from when you joined U-M Tech Transfer in 1997 to that of today?
KEN: It is different in some ways, but very similar in others. The University has always been a special place with talented, generous people, all striving to explore, work hard and achieve excellence. And Ann Arbor has always had collaborative and creative people drawn to the resources, culture and quality of life we still enjoy today. But I think there has been an evolution towards a better understanding of risk and even failure and the connection to achievement. Over the years I’ve seen a growing confidence and pride in what we have achieved together. I’ve seen the University grow in its role as a leader in economic and social outreach, in broadening the options for our faculty and our students, and in taking a stand on some of the most significant issues that we face today. It’s a real pleasure to hear compliments from peers around the country when they talk about Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan.
IMPACT: What did you do prior to working at U-M?
KEN: After receiving an engineering degree and later an MBA from U-M, I held a number of jobs in finance, business development and manufacturing. I moved to Boston and joined a young, rapidly-expanding computer company, Digital Equipment Corporation. It was the Google of its day with a culture that encouraged innovation and attracted very talented people. When our daughter was born, we returned home to Ann Arbor and I joined Northern Telecom (Nortel), and afterwards co-founded a startup to provide networked storage solutions for Apple Macintosh systems. Some years later I joined Trinova, working with a team of scientists and engineers, and began to explore technologies from the University of Michigan. I met some great U-M researchers, learned about tech transfer and soon realized the breadth and depth of the opportunities inside the University. I was hooked, and I jumped at a chance to join tech transfer to help create U-M startups and to work with the greater Ann Arbor community. And here I am.
IMPACT: What are some of your fondest memories during your University career?
KEN: There are so many. During my first few years, I focused on helping to launch new startups. I remember meeting Rick Snyder, who had returned to Ann Arbor to start a new venture fund, and connecting him to some opportunities, like Vic Strecher’s HealthMedia startup. And later working with Rick and others to start the IT Zone and later Ann Arbor SPARK. I have fond memories of building our tech transfer team, with Robin Rasor, Rick Brandon, and so many other talented colleagues. I’ve enjoyed working with Richard Douglas, my current board chair, who generously visited from Boston every month or two to assist our efforts and help the University. I loved working directly with our researchers and sharing the excitement about their discoveries. I also enjoyed working with our team, trying to help them as so many of my earlier mentors helped me.
Our tech transfer team has always had talented, creative people and although it was difficult to have people leave for new jobs, I am proud some were recruited to head up tech transfer offices around the country including MSU, Arizona, Duke, Cleveland Clinic and Florida. Everywhere I go, people recognize the impact of the University of Michigan and the quality of our tech transfer team. I’m proud to be part of that story.
IMPACT: What advice to do you have for your successor?
KEN: Embrace Michigan, value your team and enjoy the ride.