Venture Fellows Postdoc Program Empowers MSU Professors, Postdoctoral Researchers to Develop Real-World Solutions

MSU Research Foundation

Enhancements to a Michigan State University Research Foundation program headed by Brad Fingland, PhD, director of venture creation, does two things simultaneously: develop technology and develop people.

MSU Research Foundation’s Venture Fellows Program

Fingland leads the Venture Fellows Program and says the first goal of the program is to translate technology out of the university in a very deliberate manner, by developing technology, developing a business plan, developing a business model, and doing customer discovery.

“Technology translation often advances to a certain point where business drivers influence the design of experiments in a lab. Applied research can make for a more efficient technology translation,” Fingland said. “The Venture Fellows Program provides funding for a person to do that work, to move a technology to a point where a project can be a startup, or where researchers can apply for an SBIR or STTR grant.”

Fingland said the second goal—developing people—pertains to training highly technical postdocs. He said that while these individuals are trained very deeply in a specific area of science or engineering, they would benefit from programming in entrepreneurship and business.

“The Venture Fellows program is focused on developing future entrepreneurs,” Fingland said. “The intention is to translate the technology from the university into a successful startup. A postdoc will come in, they’ll do some of the technical work, they’ll do some of the business work, and after a year, they’ll come out of the program as a senior technical officer or even the CEO of a startup business.”

Early Version, Pilot Program, and Full Program

The Venture Fellows program is built on the success of the Technology Transfer Talent Network (T3N) postdoc program established in 2012. T3N is a statewide university network designed to support the commercialization of university technologies and startup creation, funded by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) and the T3N member universities. In addition to the postdoc scholars, T3N supports mentors-in-residence and commercialization fellows within the universities’ technology transfer offices. MSU Technologies, MSU’s technology transfer office and T3N member, partners with the MSU Research Foundation on the postdoc and the mentors-in-residence T3N programs.

“The Venture Fellows program is very exciting,” says Brian Wright, Associate Director at MSU Technologies. “The technology manager team at MSU Technologies works closely with Brad and others at the Foundation to identify and advance the most promising projects.”

The Process

Under the program, an MSU professor works with their technology manager to fill out an application that includes a technical problem and a solution to the problem being worked on in the lab, along with a business justification. Applications must be based on previous invention disclosures that have gone through review by MSU Technologies and mentors-in-residence. Fingland said this essentially should answer the question, “Why is this problem a marketable problem to have a solution for?” Milestones are set up to track progress through the one-year program.

Upon awarding the project to the faculty and a postdoctoral researcher, the postdoc is paired with a mentor-in-residence. Fingland said that by the end of the process, startup companies will have a more developed technology, better trained candidate employee, and possibly new intellectual property.

“Obviously, you can’t always predict if you’re going to invent something new, but that’s one possible outcome,” he said.

For the 2023–2024 program, professors from four departments will be working with postdocs to solve a variety of problems.

Program Success

Prof. Johannes Pollanen (left) assists as Venture Fellow postdoc, Dr. Pranaya Rath, measures the resonant response of a high-quality factor three dimensional microwave cavity in MSU’s Laboratory for Hybrid Quantum Systems. (photo: Gary Caldwell Productions)

The Venture Fellows program has enjoyed great success. Michigan State University’s Jerry Cowen Chair of Physics, Dr. Johannes Pollanen, was one of two professors involved. Pollanen chose Dr. Pranaya Rath to work with him as his postdoc on the project. Rath is a research associate in MSU’s Department of Physics & Astronomy.

“Dr. Rath is an expert in low-temperature experiments and quantum measurements,” Pollanen said. “He’d done really difficult experiments during his Ph.D., so I knew he’d be up for the challenge of the project here at MSU. He was also very open and excited about the entrepreneurial aspects of the project.”

Pollanen and Rath are working to develop devices for quantum sensing and signal processing based on piezoelectric surface acoustic waves (SAWs). Pollanen said SAW-based devices are a standard classical telecom technology found in many modern products, such as cell phones.

“Currently, there is still a significant need for innovation and development concerning existing quantum computer prototypes,” Rath said. “Our focus is on enhancing electromagnetic signal processing in quantum computers by harnessing the unique properties of surface acoustic waves. With suitable modifications, these devices can function as both quantum and classical sensors.”

Pollanen described quantum computing as an emerging field that is immensely exciting and intellectually satisfying, with inherent challenges involved in developing the hardware.

“It’s exciting to be on the cutting edge of the development of next-generation computing and sensing technology,” he said.

For his Ph.D. work, Rath was dedicated to developing better experimental understanding of the physical phenomena that have prevented the observation of quantum melting and finding alternative techniques to increase electron density on liquid helium or bubbles inside liquid helium known as multielectron bubbles (MEBs).

The long-term goal of this work was to overcome the physics phenomena and experimental obstacles to achieve quantum melting, which he said can open up new unexplored regimes of low-dimensional electron physics.

The majority of these experiments are conducted at low temperatures, which Rath said requires “a continuous engagement of the mind to generate innovative ideas for addressing challenges and implementing efficient solutions.”

“I believe the cryogenic expertise and the mindset of creatively tackling unknown problems that I developed during this period have greatly contributed to my journey in [the Venture Fellows Postdoc Program].”

MSU Technologies has filed a provisional patent on the work done by Pollanen and Rath who are actively progressing toward its full development as a product in a startup business.

“During the process of working on that intellectual property we realized that the devices had a much broader utility than we had originally envisioned. Realizing that was really fun!” Pollanen said.

Dr. Satyendra Kumar Singh (left), measures radioactivity with a gamma counter, under the guidance of Dr. Kurt Zinn. (photo: Gary Caldwell Productions)

Dr. Kurt Zinn is the second professor who took part in the program. Zinn is a professor in three departments at MSU: Radiology, Biomedical Engineering, and Small Animal Clinical Sciences.

The problem that Zinn and his postdoc, Dr. Satyendra Kumar Singh, identified for the program is that better treatment strategies are needed for cancer, and their solution to the problem is targeted radiation therapy using short-lived radioisotopes that emit alpha particles from a unique generator system.

“Satyendra and I were able to demonstrate our ideas would work regarding a radiolabeling kit formulation,” Zinn said. “We showed the short-lived radioisotope Pb-214/Bi-214 could be tightly bound to targeting antibodies and therapy could be achieved.”

Zinn said this kind of work holds promise for the future.

“A commercial strategy is the most effective way to help the most patients benefit from the new treatment for various cancers,” he said.

During work on the project, Singh developed intellectual property and assisted with the provisional patent application, and he is now involved with scaling up the process for commercialization.

“I am excited to use our radiolabeling kit for clinical trials and further commercialization,” Singh said.

The Rewards and Promise of the Venture Fellows Postdoc Program

All four people involved in the program are enthusiastic about their work and what the Venture Fellows Postdoc Program holds for the future.

Rath was glad the program allowed him not only to engage in research work but also provided him the unique opportunity to navigate and experience the journey toward product development.

“This aspect is particularly intriguing and is a source of great excitement for me,” Rath said.

Pollanen said he is excited about the potential for the Venture Fellows Program’s impact outside the scientific research community.

“I think this program is fantastic for helping MSU faculty to think about commercialization and how their research can be translated to the ‘real world’ outside the lab. It’s an awesome program.”

Find out more about the Venture Fellows Program at

This story was originally posted by MSU Research Foundation.


The MSU Innovation Center is dedicated to fostering innovation, research commercialization, and entrepreneurial activities from the research and discovery happening across our campus every day. We act as the primary interface for researchers aiming to see their research applied to solving real-world problems and making the world a better place to live. We aim to empower faculty, researchers, and students within our community of scholars by providing them with the knowledge, skills, and opportunities to bring their discoveries to the forefront. Through strategic collaborations with the private sector, we aim to amplify the impact of faculty research and drive economic growth while positively impacting society. We foster mutually beneficial, long-term relationships with the private sector through corporate-sponsored research collaborations, technology licensing discussions, and support for faculty entrepreneurs to support the establishment of startup companies.


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