In 2009, as “The Great Recession” ravaged the American and Global economies, capitalism as we knew it had failed magnificently forcing layoffs and underemployment in ways no one could have imagined. Industries that were robust and supposedly recession proof were facing dire situations and resting on laurels dating back 30+ years rather than driving creativity and innovation forward. As world governments sought to remedy the situation via short-term economic stimulus policies, a longer-term solution was required. In the US, government leaders (local, state, and federal) along with private and not for profit sector leaders asked themselves if there was a better way. How could we harness our internal talent and drive an innovation agenda forward for the 21st century?
In the last decade we have seen a resurgence around the facilitation of public-private partnerships and encouraging the GUIDP (Government-University-Industry Development Partnership) model. Universities have sought to play a bigger role in helping offset the costly ventures around research and development by offering their “risk mitigated” atmosphere to the major corporations of the world. Over the last 25 years we have seen the likes of Bell Labs or Xerox PARC scale down their aggressive high-risk focused R&D efforts and offset the work to entities that can better handle the risk of failure. The current innovation pipeline of cutting edge science and technology has been championed by the likes of entrepreneurially driven research universities and high tech focused small business firms that generally utilize public dollars thus allowing for private corporations to swoop in when the timing is right to license or acquire the technology for integration and deployment.
University: Bridging the Valley of Death
The real inquiry is how do we look at the “Valley of Death” for technology development and commercialization and enable the right pieces of the puzzle to interlock at the right time to help mitigate a technology’s development through the right enterprise. In my former work for the US Small Business Administration, I had an infographic commissioned to show flow of phases that a technology company would undergo when tackling a high risk and capital-intensive technology problem. Traversing the Valley requires commitment, capital and community. When you look at the phases of development, universities fit perfectly as an ideal environment to help drive innovation forward, due to their nature of being a hotbed for a multi-disciplinary interaction.
From initial research discovery to preliminary manufacturing capabilities, the university innovation ecosystem can help drive next generation innovation forward. This can only be possible though, if universities are willing to accept the mantle of being entrepreneurial and risk-taking by nature. As in, the university will need to setup the support structure, physically and culturally speaking to endorse and promote an entrepreneurial mindset. It will also require universities to embrace a collaborative and co-sharing environment, where stakeholders from across multiple disciplines engage and breakdown down the silos of formulaic academic engagement.
Case in point, look at the rise of iconic biotech company Biogen-Idec which started from the work of a university lab at MIT (Biogen side) and a university lab at UC San Diego (Idec side) before spinning out into the private market respectively and eventually merging as one major company redefining the way biotechnology firms would emerge. The rise of Biogen-Idec also spurred the life science innovation scene surrounding MIT’s Kendall Square and UC San Diego Region, becoming an epicenter for cutting edge solutions.1 2
The Road Ahead: 2040
In the early days of my career I worked at my alma mater’s RPI (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) Office of Technology Commercialization. It is home to one of the first university incubators in the USA, dating back to the early 1980’s under the vision of George Low whom believed universities could be a driving force for applied engineering and technology solutions that could be spun out to help drive the economic engine of a surrounding area and beyond³. I learned over my time at RPI’s OTC, that an environment for collaboration was important, but it required a need for coordination and breaking down of silos amongst the different disciplines and divisions at the university. Scientists, artists, business students, and more all needed to talk to each other, break bread together, and build visionary ideas in order to move solutions forward. The push for cross-disciplinary engagement has to come as an edict from the university president’s office and implemented by the Provost, Deans, and Academic Department Chairs. At the same time, faculty have to represent a more realistic diverse array of professionals that truly understand the real world of applied engagement; for example, a freshly minted PhD Assistant Professor would not compare “knowledge-base wise” to that of a practitioner of the art (BS/MS) with 5/10+ years’ experience. Rethinking the way we teach at universities and whom we recruit to profess to the next generation of students is necessary to help move the needle of innovation forward.
Since there are over 400+ University incubators currently in play, the fever to help cultivate an entrepreneurial ecosystem utilizing the robust offerings of intellectual capital and physical assets clearly show how universities are evolving beyond a setting to learn and into “meccas” for experimentation, application, and risk mitigated development4. Over the years ahead, as more entrepreneurial ecosystems evolve and grow, universities will play a crucial role as anchors for next generation technology development and private sector realizations, and thus the need for more robust and engaging public-private partnerships will have to occur in order to cultivate the future forward. Looking to the year 2040, universities will need to evolve from their mission of the pure dissemination of knowledge and expand to become effective stewards in spurring technologies and innovations within an entrepreneurial community. The outsourcing of high-end experimental projects from major R&D corporations to smaller and nimbler institutions has brought about an opportunity to allow for a next wave of partnering that will carry us forward for several decades. An opportunity exists for universities to help mitigate risk for smaller companies to grow out of a collaborative and multi-disciplinary environment that provides the student and faculty with the ability to take on risk without “losing the proverbial shirt off of one’s back.” Universities need to accept the fact that they are not only hotbeds of innovation, but will now need to be a premiere source of entrepreneurial talent as they train the workforce of the future to be agile with their skills and aspirations. In a globalized economy it will be imperative more than ever for universities to accept the mantle of being the new platform for enabling innovation and entrepreneurship for the 21st century. Whom among them will answer the call to advance their mission and our nation?
Award, DC Inno 50 on Fire, and the RPI Alumni Key Award.
1 Bendta Schroeder, How to build a biotech renaissance: MIT in Kendall Square, 2014
2 Kelly Rae Chi, The Birth of Biotech, 2007
3 Lester Gerhardt & Michael Wacholder, RPI’s Low left quite a legacy, 2016
4 Laura Pappano, Got the Next Great Idea?, 2012
Nagesh Rao has worked in the Public, Private, and NGO sectors over the last 20+ years. He is well known for co-developing programmatic endeavors such as i6 Green, Patents for Humanity, VT-Arc Additive Manufacturing Prize Challenge, SBA Growth Accelerator Fund Competition, and USAID’s-SBAR Program. Furthermore, he co-led the revamp and modernization of the SBIR.gov and SBA.gov digital platforms. As well he has curated IP-Portfolios and strategies for a number of startups and major corporations over the years.
Nagesh is a 2004 Mirzayan Fellow of the National Academies and a 2016 USA Eisenhower Fellow. His credentials include a BSc from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a MSc from Albany Law School-Union University, and a MBA from University of Maryland-College Park, as well a license to practice Patent Law from the US Patent and Trademark Office. Among many accolades that Nagesh has received over the years, prominent ones include the Mahatma Gandhi Pravasi Samman & Hind Rattan awards from the NRI Welfare Society, BT 150, ACT-IAC Collaboration