If America's economic engine has been idling, who - or what - is the driver to put it in gear and step on the gas? In one age, it was agriculture. In the next, it was industrial production. "Now, of course," said New York Times columnist David Brooks recently, "we're living in an information age. Innovation and creativity are the engines of economic growth."
One could argue that innovation and creativity have always been the economic engines. But in the not so distant past, it was the individual innovators and creative stars - the Thomas Edisons and Henry Fords - who moved society forward, often without much more than their intellect and determination to guide them.
Those stars still emerge today, but more often than not, they emerge from America's crucibles of innovation and creativity, its colleges and universities. The United States spends more than any other nation on its educational infrastructure - at least 7 percent of GDP, by one estimate - or over a trillion dollars annually to impart knowledge and generate research. Are we getting our money's worth?
Instruments of Economic Development
The "academy" has been a feature of civilization well into pre-history. It has been the place for young minds to be exercised and to contemplate humanity's origins and the human condition. Only recently though, within the last couple of centuries, have universities been viewed as instruments of economic growth or development. Land grant universities, in particular, were established by states to improve agricultural practices and spread the benefits of higher education beyond a small group of well-heeled individuals.
With the economy sputtering, many are asking if that trillion-dollar investment in education is yielding the jobs and quality of life conventional wisdom suggests it should. One of them is Ohio State University (OSU) President E. Gordon Gee. "My viewpoint is perhaps not that of the standard U.S. university president. Our colleges and universities are largely hidebound, tied to fixed canon, and - superb as they are - frustratingly slow to adapt," Gee says.
"To thrive in the 21st century," Gee told the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, China, last fall, "universities and businesses alike must cast off Jurassic thinking, seek calculated risks, and reach out aggressively to one another in partnership. In this accelerated era, tried-and-true conventional approaches will doom us to extinction."
Championing Tech Transfer
President Gee may not be alone in this thinking. Increasingly, across the country, states and their universities are looking for ways to improve tech transfer - the movement of good ideas off campus and into income-producing and job-generating enterprises. Reston, Virginia's Innovation Associates (www.innovationassoc.com) has been particularly concerned with the process, producing a series of reports in recent years with titles such as "Accelerating Economic Development Through University Technology Transfer" and "Technology Transfer and Commercialization Partnerships."
The reports find that "champions" are critical in creating technology-based economic development. Often, says Innovation Associates' 2005 report, these champions are strong university presidents or chancellors who infuse their schools with an entrepreneurial culture. That may mean providing rewards and incentives for faculty to pursue tech transfer and commercialization, or hiring individuals with industry and entrepreneurial experience.
Ohio State's Gee is one such "champion." He's recently hired a Johnson and Johnson executive, Christine Poon, to head Ohio State's Fisher College of Business and direct OSU's tech-transfer process. He's also chosen a CFO from J.P. Morgan Chase, Geoff Chatas, and a 30-year tech industry executive, Dr. Sharell Mikesell, to head the university's Industry Liaison Office - more about this later.
Combining Research and Economic Development
At the University of Missouri (UM), economic development is written specifically into the system's mission statement. President Gary Forsee is the former CEO of Sprint; and Dr. Michael Nichols, who holds eight patents and directs his own tech start-up company, is UM's vice president of Research and Economic Development. It is no coincidence that his title puts the two together. "I've often joked at some of my talks that really what the title ought to be is `from the research to the economic development,'" says Dr. Nichols.
In his three years in this position, Dr. Nichols has grown the University of Missouri's industrial park portfolio from three to 10. Some of the parks are located near UM campuses in Columbia, Rolla, St. Louis, and Kansas City. One is on the Army's Ft. Leonard Wood in central Missouri.
"We're a company, basically, with a revenue stream of about $2 billion. That ranks us in the top 20 in the state," he figures. "There are those things that are academic that are done at the university system; there are also those things that are business. And so, a university today is really a hybrid, " Dr. Nichols noted.
Dr. Nichols has streamlined the sometimes-confusing system of technology transfer: "We've worked very hard to put together teams of people to commercialize these things. We have an IP (intellectual property) lawyer, a marketing specialist, and business specialists to work on these deals." Nichols' office has even developed software called Tech Value that helps the university determine whether a particular innovation offers licensing or commercialization possibilities.
An entrepreneur himself, Dr. Nichols knows it takes more than a good team to bring an idea to fruition. It takes money. So, impatient with traditional funding vehicles, Dr. Nichols and President Forsee developed several funding mechanisms. One is a series of proof-of-concept grants - "pre-seed" grants - for faculty members to bring their concepts to the stage where a venture capital firm or existing company might adopt the technology.
But Forsee and Nichols weren't satisfied at the pre-seed level. This past October, they announced the University of Missouri Enterprise Investment Program - a $5 million pool to help start-up and early-stage companies further develop and commercialize UM technologies. The Enterprise Investment Program is funded through a combination of state and federal dollars - some from Missouri's tobacco settlement.
"We're looking at about a $50 million return in five years," says Dr. Nichols. "That translates into thousands of jobs and billions of dollars worth of sales - new products on the market. We believe we are truly an engine for development for the state."
A Research Insurance Policy
Bill Destler became Rochester Institute of Technology's (RIT's) ninth president in July of 2007. He came to the Rochester, New York school with the mind of an engineer. He was dean of the University of Maryland's engineering school, taught electrical engineering there, and received his Ph.D. from Cornell, researching "high-power microwave sources and advanced accelerator technologies." He also claims to be one of the world's foremost collectors of antique banjos, attesting to his eclectic nature. It is no surprise, then, that this engineer and banjo collector would create a novel way to accelerate the movement of research down the pipeline to commercialization.
As in any pipeline, thought Destler, a blockage would retard movement, and he saw a big blockage: "The big barrier has been, for the most part, around intellectual property. Universities have said that, if we work on it, we own it." That has discouraged companies from participating in research projects, he believes, because once an idea has been developed, a company would be required to turn around and license the intellectual property they just helped fund.
Instead, Dr. Destler is attempting to remove the uncertainty over IP ownership at RIT: "We call it the `Corporate R&D at RIT Program,' which basically allows companies to sign on for research projects here, and - in return for a very modest up-front payment - they then own the intellectual property that might be developed. It's really like buying an insurance policy."
So far, 18 companies have signed on. The money they pay "buys" them a faculty member, access to university equipment, and student researchers. All participate voluntarily. Dr. Destler says his faculty seems to jump at the opportunities "because most of them have never made a nickel on any intellectual property. And the company, of course, owns the property, so they don't worry about having to license what they just funded."
When considering the United States, Dr. Destler says, "I have this gut feeling that if you look at our combined assets in our research-intensive universities and our corporate sector, we can't be beat." The challenge is removing barriers - and Dr. Destler thinks he's hit on a formula in Rochester that does just that.
Negotiating the Maze
In addition to the IP ownership question, other potential barriers to industry-academic collaboration are language, time frames, and size. Just figuring out who does what at a major university and who might be able to help you solve your company's problem may require more resources than a small or medium-size company can muster.
Some universities, especially large ones like Ohio State, have created go-betweens - specific officers who can speak the language of industry and academia. At Ohio State, that person is Dr. Sharell Mikesell, who received his Ph.D. in polymer science and spent 30 years in industry - first with General Electric and then with Owens-Corning. He ran a 500-acre industrial research facility and managed hundreds of research scientists. Today, he manages Ohio State's Industry Liaison Office.
He understands that academics and corporate executives don't always speak the same language or work on the same time lines: "Industry comes [to the university] in May to get some research done and the faculty members get excited; then a faculty member says, `Well, really, I won't be able to start this until September when I have a student.' At that point, the industry person is ready to pull his hair out."
Dr. Mikesell not only finds the right university resources for companies, but also helps negotiate the dealings between company representatives and faculty so that there are few surprises along the way. This must be working because he can point to at least 200 company reps that have come through his office and are now collaborating with OSU faculty and students.
To help move even more good ideas from Ohio State and other Ohio universities into the marketplace, new OSU Senior Vice President of Business and Finance Geoff Chatas and President Gee are exploring models for creating a statewide venture capital fund - that could be as large as $100 million - in which multiple schools might participate. Chatas says he's been quietly researching options with his contacts in the financial world. Such a fund might be able to bridge the "valley of death," where academic research can die for lack of funding to take it to the prototype and commercial levels.
Work Force Collaboration
It's not just research that industry needs from America's universities. It's a talented work force. A unique collaboration was announced September 27 in New York between IBM, the New York City Department of Education, and City University of New York. Essentially, the three entities intend to create a new "9-14" school in which students will start their freshman year of high school and end with an associate's degree in information technology. IBM will collaborate in curriculum development, provide hardware and software solutions, and then offer graduates first crack at IT jobs in its New York area operations.
What's being called in the media the "Big Blue School" grew from ongoing collaborations between IBM and the educational institutions in its midst. In fact, Doris Gonzalez, who heads the effort for IBM, has an education background. "We're not just in this for us," she said recently. "It's really a national issue. You have all these IT jobs that are going unfilled. You have students not being prepared with the skills they need to get those jobs. It's definitely impacting the overall economy." If it works in New York, Ms. Gonzalez says IBM hopes to offer the program to schools and companies nationwide that might want to replicate its effort.
A Changing Mission
Perhaps because of a sluggish economy or dwindling government support - or both - there is an even greater need for industry and higher education to collaborate. In today's information and innovation-fueled economy, they can no longer operate independently of each other. The assets ensconced behind the ivy are too valuable to leave there.