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Innovation, Entrepreneurship and the 21st-Century Public Research University

The EvoLLLution |
Crafting a curriculum and support structures that support entrepreneurialism and innovation are the hallmarks of a university designed for the transforming postsecondary environment.

Discovery, archiving and dissemination of knowledge serve as the basis for the generic model for public research universities. These institutions, of course, owe their structure to the Morrill Act (1862), the subsequent Hatch Act of 1887, and the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, all of which emphasize the transfer of knowledge to society.

While patenting at universities can be traced back to the 1920s, the commercialization of inventions and intellectual property, even today, is often considered to be in conflict with scholarship, the purity of discovery, and the concept of pursuing knowledge for its own sake. The Bayh-Dole Act, passed in 1980 to energize the U.S. economy, catalyzed a partial shift from this position by allowing universities to own and license, to the private sector, intellectual property based on their discoveries made with federal funding. Changes in economic conditions over the past two decades and increasing expectations for universities to be partners with local entities and the state in economic development—along with a decrease in direct state funding of public universities for education—has led to an increasing focus on research and commercialization as important, and integral, parts of revenue generation for universities.

Beyond its role in discovery, innovation and the resulting entrepreneurship are now an inherent part of the public university’s lexicon (albeit one still not fully embraced) and we must be willing to adapt and change to best gain from its influence and impact.

Today, we are in an environment that has most, if not all, public research universities expanding their research enterprise beyond fundamental and applied research to a continuum that increasingly includes economic development as a core mission. University mission statements often explicitly include the phrase “economic development.” At many universities, the top administrator for the research enterprise carries the tag of “Research and Economic Development” or “Research and Innovation” and has dedicated staff who run technology incubators, technology parks, and/or technology transfer and commercialization operations. They work actively on spinning off companies based on student and faculty inventions. A recent report pegged the economic benefits of academic licensing from 1996 to 2017 to industry gross output and gross domestic product as much as a staggering $1.7 trillion and $865 billion, respectively, in 2012 US dollars. In addition, as many as 5.9 million people-years of employment were estimated to result as a direct result of these actions. Taken together, these metrics are clear indicators that US research universities are among the most powerful forces in catalyzing economic transformation.

The very best universities are not just creators of new knowledge, educators of a workforce, and developers of the intellectual human capital for the future. They also actively serve as catalysts for innovation and economic development, simultaneously imparting a dynamism through entrepreneurship and a resilience through their ability to re-envision the future.

In past decades, the greatness of a university was measured by its Nobel Prize winners, members in the National Academies, and world-renowned academicians, setting the institution apart from others as a leader in scholarship and research. Today, however, the influence and reputation of a university is measured not just in terms of papers, creativity activity, research grants and contracts, and membership of its personnel on distinguished professional and scholarly boards. It’s also in how the university influences and changes the world and society. While in the past, we would have liked to be recognized as the intellectual and socio-cultural center for the city and region, we now need to be much more—the socio-economic hub and a catalyst for innovation, entrepreneurial activity, and economic development.

However, the traditional university may not be completely ready for this. Success needs faculty members, and even more specifically, an administration and academic environment/ethos with a different working mindset and mode of operation than that focusing on the conduct of just basic research or even applied research. It essentially requires that researchers and faculty are allowed, encouraged and even enabled to engage in translational work that does not necessarily result in outcomes that have traditionally been considered as being essential for the advancement of one’s career, such as archival and conference publications, presentations at academic gatherings, and contracts/grants from federal or state agencies for conducting research that is largely in the open domain.

This is a change in philosophy for a culture where perhaps James Watt and Thomas Edison would have been thought of highly in their own times… but not granted tenure!

There is a clear disconnect and misalignment at most universities between the desire for a change in ethos toward a culture of innovation and technology transfer, and the incentives afforded to faculty members through the advancement of their academic careers in terms of merit raises, tenure, promotion, and even the ability to work with the corporate sector. If innovation is to be truly encouraged, we need to not only enable individual efforts at commercialization, but also build an environment that is supportive of it.

Scholarly effort—tremendous amounts of it—go into the creation of inventions, their translation into patents, innovation, and spinoff companies. Just as the creation, presentation, and sale of a painting, sculpture, or a play represents scholarship in terms of creative activity on the faculty member’s part, so should the development of inventions, commercialization, and the establishment of a company based on innovation as a form of creative activity that now catalyzes economic development and employs people. Changes such as these are accelerated through concerted effort and recognition at a national level of the criticality of our universities engaging actively in innovation—the creation of knowledge not just for its own sake but as a means of economic development and the advancement of the region served by that university. At its simplest, this is merely the modern version of the Morrill Act—a 21st-century public Research University mission, moving from the transfer of knowledge about the “agricultural and mechanical sciences” to innovation, entrepreneurship, and commercialization of technology.

University campuses are filled with bright minds. They come to learn, generate ideas, work on developing new technologies and concepts, and they are a vital part of our discovery-driven research enterprise. The primary goal of which is the enhanced understanding of the frontiers of human knowledge. Aspects such as Start-Up lounges, entrepreneurship workshops, Shark-Tank type business pitch competitions, and even courses and certificates on entrepreneurship and innovation have become increasingly common on campuses.

There are a number of things we’re doing at the University of Texas at Arlington to create an entrepreneurial environment on our campus. We host a Start-Up Lounge and the the EpiCMavs program, where discussions focus on topics of relevance to budding and struggling entrepreneurs in a weekly entrepreneurship workshop series format. We also host PitchUTA, a Shark Tank type competition.

We run courses on entrepreneurship including a series that provides substantial funding to student companies that “graduate” through a series of activities and serve as the major sponsor of TechFW, a regional non-profit organization that focuses on helping entrepreneurs launch and grow emerging technology companies.

What’s more, is we maintain units such as the Shimadzu Institute, UTARI (which focuses on market driven research and product creation) and TMAC (which focuses on providing hands-on business management, technology, and operations solutions to existing and new small and medium sized businesses).

But we need to do more.

To ensure that our students, faculty and staff entrepreneurs reach their potential we need to develop and grow an ecosystem that encourages, enables, connects, and supports them. Even further, we need to build a structure that ultimately allows for their successes without creating barriers and obstacles based on bureaucracy, being over cautious to the extent of stifling innovation, and obstinately wanting to “play in the old sand box” or fit “a square peg” in the proverbial “round hole” because we have always done it that way!

First, we need to ensure that our entrepreneurs in the making are connected to one another and to other successful entrepreneurs right from the outset. We need to build mechanisms that bring the brightest minds together to not only generate ideas but to develop them so that concepts become processes and prototypes through the classes and courses that make up our curricula. Let us put that in context. When we educate business and engineering students, we fill the curriculum with simulations (real-world problems and case studies, projects, design courses, and capstones). We require, or highly encourage, internships. We do the same with our education and nursing students; being at the leading edge of simulation and hospital-based training. In fact, in the case of UTA, this is why the latter are so highly coveted by employers across the metroplex. We do it because we recognize that textbook and academic knowledge is not enough and that our students have to learn—at times without a safety net.

We have been extremely successful in enabling the mix of academic knowledge and real-world experience in some areas. We now need to do the same for our entrepreneurs, acknowledging that while entrepreneurship and innovation can be catalyzed and supported it cannot be taught through “book knowledge”. We need to enable and support our students through modifications in our curricula to ensure that they get these experiences including through use of a “sink or swim” real world type environment. We need to ensure that they can use that experience towards a degree and towards career success. To do this we need hands on opportunities through a rigorous screening process—ensuring that those with innovative ideas can be helped to develop prototypes, understand the value of a business plan and be assisted in creating one.

This cannot be in theory—it has to be real world, and it has to allow for failure. That means that universities must get into the business of actively assisting with start-ups rather than just sitting on the sidelines, and this will necessitate a sea change in operations for public research universities as they grapple with a myriad of laws and policies that at times make it difficult for a unit to promote the concept of “making money.” But models do exist and these need to be further developed taking the best examples from private institutions and the use of for-profit subsidiaries and partnerships.

The steps that are needed at the level of student engagement are relatively easy in comparison to the aspects that need consideration for faculty involvement. Too often entrepreneurial faculty, those with the right experience to be mentors to our students in starting and running businesses, find it difficult to continue at universities themselves. While a number of institutions will allow faculty to take a leave of absence for a fixed time-period, generally of about a year or perhaps even two to start a company, most require that the faculty member to not have an ongoing direct relationship after that initial period.  In doing so we often lose some of our most innovative and entrepreneurial faculty since we make them chose between their love for academia and mentoring students, and the joy of growing the business that they have initiated through the very creativity and innovation that we admire. While we cannot, and should not, ease up on aspects of conflict of interest and conflict of commitment, we need to figure out mechanisms that would allow successful entrepreneurs to balance these aspects. We need to enable them to continue as full-fledged faculty, through well-defined separations of commitment on an ongoing basis. The models used by colleges of medicine and architecture enabling professional practice alongside teaching, research and service responsibilities provide opportunities for adaptation. Such steps will necessitate a focus on changing the status quo, providing value to new considerations in expanding the traditional three-legged academic stool teaching, research, and service to one with four or even five legs, to encompass partnerships with the corporate world for active technology transfer and commercialization from within. At most public research universities, we have continued for decades to discuss, without significant movement, the need for a balance between teaching, research and the establishment of tracks that are different but equal and which might even allow for movement between tracks over time. This discussion needs to now be expanded to entrepreneurship and brought to a successful conclusion. Just as we need excellent teachers and researchers, we need successful and engaged entrepreneurs on our faculty, who can bring daily lessons learned to the classroom. Depending on adjuncts for this does provide a mechanism but it is far from the best possible.

Change is difficult, but if we are to become the universities of the current century and those for the future, we have to find a way to address the need for not only growing the entrepreneurial spirit on our campuses but also enabling its success. We have a social responsibility to take the knowledge created within the university and the creativity of our students, staff and faculty and move it along the innovation continuum as rapidly as possible – from idea, through business plan and fledgling start up, to a successful company that “graduates” from the institution.

Knowledge, creativity, and innovation – whether in form of art, music, technology, or service, is of limited use when it is pre-destined to be left on dusty bookshelves. It is transformed when translated into action and then sees real value when it sees light through commercialization and use. The only thing holding us back is our imagination, the drive to move to the forefront of the innovation economy, and the commitment to make it happen. Already small steps are being taken to invent the 21st-century analogy of the land grant institutions envisioned by the Morrill Act – this time in the form of public research universities that are catalysts and full partners in the innovation economy.