As she takes over as the new assistant dean for the medical school’s Innovation Center, Sandra Cochrane will lead a facility she knows well and helped build more than a decade ago.
Her new role will be a chance for her to grow the Innovation Center into an “entrepreneurial landmark,” an “entrepreneurial beacon” and take care of what she says is unfinished business at the incubator and business accelerator.
“I left (the Innovation Center) nine years ago,” Cochrane said. “We were young and inexperienced … This is a chance to come back and grow the program into something that I wanted it to be all along – the entrepreneurial landmark, the entrepreneurial beacon of the community.”
Cochrane will oversee the daily operations and activities of the facility, a 69,000-square-foot building on WMed’s Parkview Campus that currently houses 16 client companies specializing in life science, technology and engineering.
Cochrane knows the Innovation Center well. In the early 2000s, former Southwest Michigan First CEO Barry Broome charged her with getting the center off the ground and by 2003, she was the acting CEO of what was then known as the Southwest Michigan Innovation Center.
Later, she served as the facility’s chief operating officer, a position she held until 2008 when she departed for the Michigan Small Business Development Center, a federally and state-funded entity focused on helping small businesses in the state grow and create economic impact.
Cochrane said her work at the SBDC helped her hone the skills that will serve her well as assistant dean for the WMed Innovation Center. The work has also been rewarding. Over the past three years, she’s counseled and coached high-tech entrepreneurs at 421 companies that have gone on to raise more than $100 million in capital for their new ventures.
“It was a fabulous opportunity to develop my skills as a consultant,” she said. “I spent the last nine years in the trenches with young companies and seeing how they struggle and learning how to help them.”
Cochrane, 50, says she enjoys the coaching and teaching that is involved in helping fledgling businesses become successful. She’s an Ann Arbor native whose path to becoming a keen technology business consultant began at Michigan State University where she earned a bachelor’s degree in English Education.
After her undergraduate studies at MSU, Cochrane said she taught school for a while in Florida and also spent time in Washington state where, among other things, she worked in a hospital’s billing office.
“I jokingly tell everybody I know just enough about any industry to be dangerous,” Cochrane said.
In 2001, Cochrane returned to MSU and earned a master’s degree in Business Administration and, that same year, began her work at Southwest Michigan First.
She says now that she fell in love with helping and consulting young businesses after beginning the work to build the Innovation Center.
“I had to learn it all and as I learned about what (a business incubator) did, how it serves its clients and what it does for economic development and community revitalization, I got really excited about that,” she said. “It was my first exposure to entrepreneurship and I thought it was fabulous.”
In addition to the work she did at the SBDC, Cochrane has kept her teaching skills sharp, hosting sessions for the International Business Innovation Association and teaching courses at Western Michigan University’s Haworth College of Business on strategic business solutions and exploring entrepreneurship.
Cochrane’s first day on the job at the WMed Innovation Center is Monday, Jan. 30, 2017, and she has her eyes set on walking through the door ready to take care of a lengthy to-do list.
Among other things, she wants to ramp up an aggressive marketing campaign to spread the word about the good work being done -- and the opportunities that exist -- at the Innovation Center. She also wants to start a co-working program at the facility, a venture she says will give young entrepreneurs a chance to access the business incubator setting that the Innovation Center offers for a small monthly fee.
Additionally, she says she is part of a small group of individuals working on forming a collection of angel investors in Kalamazoo who have an interest in investing in tech startups. She also wants the Innovation Center to be a hub for training programs and open the facility to the public for sessions that would cover a broad range of topics from applying for grants to lunch and learns with professionals such as patent attorneys.
Cochrane said she also will focus on what she calls “deal flow,” ensuring that the center has a steady stream of new companies who are seeking to call the building home and get their start in Southwest Michigan. That challenge will involve looking for life science, technology and engineering startups in Kalamazoo, but also across the state of Michigan, she said.
In the midst of everything that she will take on, Cochrane said she is excited to “make the Innovation Center that hub of entrepreneurial activity that I always thought it could be … that central point where people come when they want to do something entrepreneurial.”
“I want Kalamazoo to take its place with the other smart zones of the state,” she said. “I don’t think we’re being as recognized as we could be.”
The medical school acquired the Innovation Center in January 2016 and Cochrane said that development will only help her as she tackles the challenges in her new role. She said she’s also excited about what may come of the relationship forged by the medical school and the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences at WMU.
“Research has shown that incubators in communities that contain medical schools have a higher rate of technology transfer and commercialization,” she said. “These researchers and these students are very bright … It’s just natural that there will be some development over the years. I can’t think of any better relationship to have than what we have right now.
“These are really smart people with really bright students, there are going to be great things that come out of it. It puts us in a great position to help bring those great ideas to commercial fruition because great ideas that just sit on a shelf somewhere don’t do anything.”