Harpoon Notes for April 10, 2019

Joan Knoertzer’s piano prelude drifted gracefully through the ballroom, providing, like Dante’s Virgil, a soothing guide to the ceremonious rattle of the Rotary bell. All stood to sing “God Bless America,” and a fine rendition it was. President Greg, who would deliver the day’s Inspiration, quoted historian Jon Meachum on the Civil War: “as ‘a fitful evolution toward our nation’s promise.'” Then, citing Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, on March 4, 1865 — “his last speech; he would die a month later” — Greg read: “‘With malice towards none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.'”

Don Duquette came up next to lead us in song. (Your reporter overheard Sara Maddock say to her guests, “Did I mention, this is a singing club?”) A mellow cadence was set with the classic “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” and “I’m Looking Over a 4-Leaf Clover”.

Returning to the podium, Greg greeted everyone warmly, thanked meeting volunteers, and asked hosts to introduce their guests. Past President Bob Kerry introduced Chris Stowe, “a development associate with the Boy Scouts of America”; Dallas Dort introduced Dave Hartman, “who’s [knowledgeable about] tech transfer, and is a serial entrepreneur”; Greg Molino was Dave Williams’ guest: “Greg’s worked with start-ups and private equity”; and Sara Maddock introduced Don and Jan Olsen “who are moving to Michigan from Maryland. Don is a retired colonel, and was raised in Flint”. A wave of genial applause welcomed all guests.

“Anybody signing up today to volunteer for the Golf and Tennis Outing will receive a Popeil Pocket Fisherman,” Greg announced to vociferous laughter and not a few puzzled expressions of ‘what’s that?’ Immediately, some waggish member remarked, “Greg, if you want to attract the Millennials, you may want to offer something else!” [Note: In the realm of what is considered American exceptionalism, the Pocket Fisherman may not embody the gravitas of Old Glory, but it does evoke the more comforting era of Charo, Peter Lemongello, the Bicentennial, and “Banacek”.]

Todd Kephart, Rotary Fights Summer Hunger Committee chair, then recapped the successful recent food drive: “We concluded our 15th annual Food Drive on March 15th. Once again, we partnered with our local food bank, Food Gatherers, to place collection boxes throughout the county. Food Gatherers had the Harold and Kay Peplau match in place again, doubling our contributions for all gifts above $25 to make the math 6 meals per dollar contributed.” Then Todd informed his appreciative audience of a remarkable fact: “Our goal this year was 60,000 meals. I am proud to announce that we raised 84,735 meals for the hungry in our community.” Todd concluded by mentioning Food Gatherers’ annual “Grillin’ Event” will take place Sunday, June 9, at the Washtenaw Farm Council Grounds. He also thanks his Committee members “for their hard work to make this year a success,” and asked any Rotarians who would like to join the Committee to let him know. “We are always looking to expand the drive, so…help us out next year or if you know someone who works for an employer…that might be interested…please let one of us know. Thanks.”

Following hearty applause for Todd, Greg announced that the DOGS have once again flown their kennel. Phil and his fellow DOGS will meet this Saturday at 9:00 a.m. at Leslie Science Center to help with outdoor cleanup. The work will last until noon. Interested members, guests, and friends please contact Karen Driggs: karen@thesleepycricket.com.”

Next occurred a moving tribute to our fellow-Rotarian, Ingrid Deininger. Lois Jelneck and Leo Shedden came to the podium and directed the audience’s attention to the screen. A beautiful photo of Ingrid and Lois appeared. “Our newer members might not know Ingrid — here she is, with me, at the time we started the first hospice service in Ann Arbor. We began with a handful of nurses and volunteers, then grew, and then we formed a 501(c)3.” Leo spoke next, highlighting Ingrid’s early life “in Berlin during the war. Her father had disappeared in Russia, then her mother died soon after. Ingrid took care of her sister, found food, and made clothing from old uniforms.” [Note: Lois informed your reporter soon after Ingrid’s death that she had also gone out into the rubble of her neighborhood, pulling out people who were buried under debris from the constant bombing.] Leo continued: “Eventually, she and her sister were rescued by an aunt and uncle. Because the uncle was a rocket propulsion scientist, the U.S. government wanted him…Eventually, they moved to Indiana, where Ingrid and her sister went to a school, where they learned English.” Leo then poignantly noted, “Imagine, one day you’re in war-torn Berlin; the next, you’re attending school in the American Midwest!” Leo went on to describe Ingrid’s training as a nurse, marriage to Rolf, and move to Ann Arbor. Thus was Ingrid’s remarkable story brought full-circle; the arduous journey of a healer. One needed only to glance at the faces in the room to know that a friend was gone.

Speaker: Ian Bund came to the podium to introduce our speaker, Rafael Castilla, Director of Risk Management with the University of Michigan’s Investment Office. Ian highlighted Mr. Castilla’s education, particularly his earning of the JD from Yale Law School, his study of applied mathematics from Harvard, and his previous employment with JP Morgan Chase, Merrill Lynch, and as a principal with a private equity firm. He also thanked his fellow members on the Program Committee, especially Past President Norman Herbert and Dallas Dort, Committee chair.

“I’d like to thank Ian, Dallas, Norman and Greg for asking me to speak to you,” Mr. Castilla began. “I’ll start by talking about technology transfer at Michigan. Prior to 1980, things were in a kind of limbo: institutions that conducted research couldn’t commercialize that research [a result of governmental restrictions pertaining to public funding]. But the government wasn’t really utilizing the technology [developed from funded research].” With the advent of the Reagan Revolution and privatization, however, this situation gradually changed. Mr. Castilla showed a slide titled “A Brief History of Tech Transfer at Michigan”. Today, the University of Michigan is a powerhouse in tech transfer: the R&D, patenting, and (usually) licensing of technology to private companies. As Rafael noted, “Most inventions are licensed, [though, that is a] decision by the University as to whether or not to create a company.” He acknowledged that this autonomy poses ethical questions, what he called “a conflict of paradigms.” He continued by way of explanation: “Academia [favors] freedom and openness; the approach of business is that of ownership and secrecy.” As a partial remedy, he and his department created MINTS — Michigan Investment in New Technology Start-ups — in 2011, and approved by the Board of Regents. Among the requirements for funding is that the private companies acquire a tech license from the University. In regard to pipeline, Rafael stated that “there were some precedents [research/inventions] at MINTS’ inception, but there are many more now.”

Being a public University, the U-M exercises copious oversight: “First and foremost,” Castilla insisted, “we look at return on investment (ROI) for the University — we’re fiduciaries.” In addition, the decision to develop technology, with or without outside partners, is predicated on “a limit of $2.5 million max per round of funding…Also, it must support S.E. Michigan’s economic development and venture capital ecosystem.” Regarding venture capital, Rafael pointed out a benefit of the U-M model — “There are more variants with the funding structure at universities than with VC companies…We create contact and cooperation between the Investment Office and other areas of the University.” Thus, if your reporter understands correctly, the interdisciplinary resources of the University offer a convenient ‘critical mass’ of knowledge and applied solutions.

Another advantage of tech transfer at the U-M, Rafael observed, is that “we don’t have a fund life. Because our structure is different, it allows us to work with companies in a helpful way compared to regular VC companies.”

Support is not limited to companies in Michigan, our speaker pointed out, “they just need to have a license.” That said, consideration is given to qualified in-state firms. In terms of funding allocation, he explained it is split “about 50-50 between physical and life sciences. We [in the Investment Office] can’t understand all the science in the technology — we need partners [who can help us make decisions].” He then described the overall perspective of the Investment Office and University: “We’re intellectual property-based as opposed to business plan-based. There’s usually an invention [developed with] U-M faculty and other advisors.”

In conclusion, Rafael emphasized the strengths of U-M tech transfer: “There’s lots of commercial and technological risk…We have the advantage of not being fund timed, and of being able to invest smaller amounts to companies that don’t have any revenue yet.”

A spirited ovation followed Rafael’s presentation. Several insightful questions were asked, of which three will be highlighted. Dallas enquired whether “the output, commercialization, and impact on the economy can be measured?” Castilla: “I don’t have the information in front of me. We’re pretty good at tech transfer at Michigan…Now, how well is MINTS doing? These investments have such a long life; I’ll be retired before I know the answers.” Steve Schram asked about the effects of the Freedom of Information Act “on what you’re doing?” “That’s a great question,” replied Rafael. “We don’t have any problem with it…We don’t have to disclose investment practices.” Vic Rosenberg’s question about any “obligation to invest locally, because Michigan’s economy could use it,” elicited a no answer — “We invest for return, primarily. [That said,] There’s been a lot more sensitivity to investing for reasons other than return.” As an example, he cited the University’s stand against South African apartheid in the 1980s. Nevertheless, his listeners understood that, where technological investment is concerned, return is king.

Greg concluded the meeting by thanking Mr. Castilla, and quoting Lincoln: “I’ve never heard of anyone who outsmarted honesty.”