Many at the University of Michigan were awaiting Nobel Prize winner Dr. Gerard Mourou’s lecture and reception when he returned to the school where he researched and taught for 18 years. Don Harter and Tak Omitsu, current and former staff at IMRA America, were no exception.
They have great reason, as Mourou’s innovations in high speed lasers are the foundation of IMRA’s products and represent a pivotal success story in licensing commercializable technologies developed in academia.
Mourou brought his expertise to bear at U-M, where early on he established the Center for Ultrafast Optical Science (CUOS) in 1991 to create a one-stop-shop for collaborative research. IMRA was intrigued. They committed to Ann Arbor, creating a location in town that currently employs 73 people. Tak Omitsu, then Director of Research at IMRA (and longtime President of IMRA), had been pursuing a research topic at U-M that might fulfill the company’s goals.
He was introduced to Gerard Mourou, and the two could envision automotive applications utilizing ultrafast phenomena in the long term, with identified short term commercial applications as well. Gerard’s interests included furthering this technology for scientific pursuits but also developing commercial applications. Two notable key applications for Mourou’s groundbreaking research include one that has transformed vision for thousands of people through LASIK eye surgery and one that led to commercial applications with IMRA. Mourou was instrumental in starting the ultrafast research at IMRA, and he helped bring his former graduate school colleague, Don Harter, to IMRA to lead the research.
Industry relationships and technology transfer were reaching new heights in the 1990s, and U-M’s Office of Technology Transfer helped IMRA and Mourou navigate this landscape.
Tak shared, “When our product was almost ready, we had to talk to U-M about the patent; without that fundamental patent, we couldn’t go to market. Through the tech transfer and corporate relations staff, the key advisory board members to U-M, we started negotiating through a number of issues.”
“This partnership demonstrates a successful balance. Mourou’s lab had a fundamental, long vision of the research, and IMRA had to be very practical. We have a good partnership between both sides. Without the two together, the technology would never go to market,” Tak says.
“Many companies are now successful at this, but when we started there were almost none. By having our facility so close to Mourou and the University of Michigan, we could pursue advances and recruit key people. This was a great collaboration through the years.”
Harter, who traveled to Stockholm for the Nobel Prize ceremony along with many other students and colleagues from U-M, has seen the line of products from this technology increase. He says, “This joint research between IMRA, Gerard Mourou and the University of Michigan has led to successful business with applications that have had an impact on society.
Mak Yoshida, current President of IMRA, commented, “IMRA has been strongly supported by Aisin and Toyoda family, and the main goal for IMRA is that our Ultrafast laser technology would lead to an impact in the automotive and other new business, and that has now happened. For our application, the IMRA laser is now used to groove the surface of pistons for engines in certain models of Corollas and Lexus. It is unique, specialized technology that Toyota calls ‘Piston with Laser Pit Skirt’. This unprecedented technology is a big component in increasing overall engine efficiency. That efficiency translates to cost and fuel savings that add up. This is one direct way Mourou’s discoveries have had a real-world impact on businesses and individuals.”
IMRA America and the University of Michigan Business Engagement Center continue to have a close partnership. In addition to multiple sponsored research projects, IMRA America has contributed over $2.6 million to the University in corporate philanthropy, ranging from gifts to the College of Engineering and the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, to the Museum of Art.