One Detroit Funder’s Plan for a Biotech Boost in the Struggling City

Detroit has become a symbol of urban decline in the rust belt. But the foundation named after the former owner of the Detroit Pistons just made a suite of grants to make Southeast Michigan a symbol of biotechnology and health care innovation. The grants aim to translate the region’s educational and research assets into business opportunities. 

The William Davidson Foundation, in the name of the late glass manufacturing CEO and sports team owner, just made a round of grants to improve the economic condition of the region that includes nearly $8 millionto back STEM education, and research and entrepreneurship, particularly in health care innovations.

Biotech investment is just one effort to get the city back on its feet. With Detroit at an extreme low point, stakeholders in the city are exploring new ways to breathe life back into the former automotive boom town, including donating free houses to writers and journalists. 

The Davidson tech grants are split primarily between the University of Michigan and the Henry Ford Health System, and seek to accelerate healthcare and biotech inventions and commercial applications, and also create new leaders in the field through mentoring and fellowships. 

The University of Michigan will put $4.35 million to three of its tech initiatives. The first, Fast Forward Medical Innovation, “mines” faculty projects for promising commercial applications, and also trains and mentors inventors on how to commercialize their ideas. The second, U-M Tech Transfer, will apply funds to commercializing health applications related to data and software. A third, the Center for Entrepreneurship, provides training to graduating U-M students who have promising tech startups. 

Henry Ford Health System, a nonprofit health care organization based in Detroit, will receive $3 million to establish a William Davidson Center for Entrepreneurs in Digital Health. The center will create educational programs related to digital health care applications, open to hospital doctors and staff, residents, and high school and middle school students, including a fellowship program. 

On a similar note, the foundation made a $500,000 grant to the Michigan Science Center for youth education. 

The William Davidson Foundation launched in 2005, but only became active in 2009, with assets around $370 million. Its priorities are split between preserving and enhancing Jewish life, and improving the economic prosperity in southeastern Michigan. There’s been a notable legal battle between the late billionaire’s family members over control of the foundation, and in part the president’s salary. But the foundation doesn't seem to have slowed down. Annual giving has ramped up in recent years, as high as $46 million in 2012 and continuing strong through 2013.