Staff Spotlight: Volker Sick
The Center for Entrepreneurship (CFE) is thrilled to announce that we have added a new member to the team – well, sort of. Dr. Volker Sick may be new to the role of Faculty Director at the CFE, but he’s been heavily involved with our students and faculty for years.
Dr. Sick heads the Innovation for Impact: Climate Change program, which pairs student teams with emergent companies making a significant impact on the carbon balance of the planet. This year’s cohort includes projects with companies such as Blue Planet, Carbonbuilt, Compact Membrane Systems, and Skynano Technologies.
We sat down with Volker to get to know him a little better and introduce him to our students and communities. Read on to learn more about Volker’s career, his connection to entrepreneurship, and more!
You may be new to this position, but you certainly aren’t new to the University of Michigan or the CFE. Can you tell us a little bit about your career path so far?
My academic career started overseas, at the University of Heidelberg in Germany where I earned three degrees in chemistry and physical chemistry. I built my early research program around developing laser diagnostics to conduct measurements in flames. That expanded to more applied work related to automobile and rocket engines, and later also the human eye.
The former eventually brought me to the University of Michigan (U-M) in 1997 when I joined the Department of Mechanical Engineering. The proximity to the auto industry was fruitful to build a strong collaborative program with General Motors. I have always believed that as a faculty member we should engage in teaching, research, and service, and I have followed that approach since I was a PhD student.
At U-M I served in various administrative roles, the CFE faculty director being the latest. But it was during my time as Associate Vice President (AVP) for Research for Physical Sciences and Engineering that my interaction with the CFE began. At former CFE Director Thomas Zurbuchen’s suggestion in 2012, I submitted a successful proposal to the Michigan Economic Development Corporation to obtain funding for a program that became MTRAC Transportation.
In very close collaboration with the CFE, I led the program for six years until the end of my appointment as AVP. The program is still active and so far, has launched 27 new companies out of U-M. It was also during that time as AVP when I had the pleasure of overseeing the planning, construction, launch, and operation of Mcity.
While fantastic research was enabled right away for many faculty, I felt that we did not capitalize enough on Mcity’s unique facility for education. As a result, former CFE Executive Director Tom Frank and I piloted TechLab at Mcity in 2016 (now Perot Jain TechLab at Mcity in 2016 with four students and one partner company. Today, this has grown into a whole family of courses that includes other TechLabs and Innovation for Impact courses with different topical foci.
While I really liked the TechLab course model, my involvement with Mcity did not continue beyond my days as AVP. My own research and service work on climate change related subjects led to the development of Innovation for Impact: Climate Change, which I introduced together with former Dixon and Carol Doll CFE Executive Director Jonathan Fay in 2019. At some point I was recruited to serve on the faculty committee for CFE, which I continue to do, but now, as of this year, I also began to work as faculty director.
What’s been your favorite part of working with students on Innovation for Impact: Climate Change?
Innovation for Impact is based on teams with students selected from up to four different disciplines across U-M that are most strongly related to the intended project’s needs and opportunities.
The fun begins with putting together the teams and then seeing them come together, finding a focus, appreciating their own shortcomings and building on the complementary skills that others bring. Even more so than in the International Engineering Summer School at TU Berlin that I co-teach, Innovation for Impact benefits from teams that might be academically as diverse as to include a freshman and a PhD student and any level in between. The learnings that come from such a combination go way beyond the subject matter and have always fascinated me in their success.
In addition to being faculty director, you also teach a course yourself! What drew you to teaching?
I have been teaching since I was an undergraduate student at Heidelberg University. There are many reasons as to why I enjoy teaching. Mostly, though, I believe that the biggest legacy I leave as a faculty is having helped launch so many careers by being part of a student’s journey to build their skills and find their way. That is incredibly humbling and also gratifying. And let’s not forget that teaching is one of the best ways to learn!
What excites you about entrepreneurship?
I find the entire systematic process of taking a nascent idea to a commercialized product or service absolutely fascinating. The systems-level thought process that is needed for that is so very helpful also in my own research. It is exciting to see both come together now since, after going through I-Corps training, my Research Fellow Josh Herzog and I are now on the way to commercialize our research on microbial infection diagnosis and monitoring.
What drew you to the CFE?
The exciting opportunities with TechLab and MTrac allowed me to fill a void, or at least add to the many opportunities for students and faculty that are available at U-M. But first and foremost, none of that would have been half as much fun, or would even have come to life, without the opportunity to work together with the many accomplished and inspiring people that make up CFE!
What do you like to do for fun?
I used to build HiFi equipment as a more affordable means to have higher quality audio experiences. Once I started my faculty position at U-M, I was too busy to continue that so now, I just listen. But I continue to enjoy (re-)building things around the house. After decades of doing research on new digital imaging technologies, I have begun to go beyond just taking pictures with my iPhone. Exploring the world with a full frame camera is an interesting and exciting endeavor.
Lastly, in addition to biking to and from work, I like to cook. Not only is the outcome worthwhile, but the process of slowing down from a hectic work day is a nice counterpoint to going above the work speed limit all day long.
Have more questions for Volker or any other member of the CFE staff? Stop by our offices on the 3rd floor of the Duderstadt Building on North Campus or schedule a virtual advising appointment online today.