Unleashing the Innovation Ecosystem

by Timothy D. Sands

Those of us who have spent time in American higher education know that there's something slightly different, dare I say special, about land-grant universities. Advancing the boundaries of knowledge while closely wedded to job-creating initiatives, universities like Virginia Tech are at the center of the 21st-century "innovation ecosystem."

Although we are generally considered Virginia's leading economic development university, we have the potential to do still more. Our challenges here are not dissimilar from those of other land-grant universities, but I think we are in a better position to resolve them.

Corporate America sometimes is frustrated, rightfully in my opinion, with higher education's penchant to argue over intellectual property (IP) rights. Universities should and must engage in commercialization and entrepreneurship, and Virginia Tech is playing its part well. However, we must alter our approach.

In many cases, we should engage in commercialization not for the potential licensing revenue stream, but for the more important institutional and societal benefits. Sure, revenue is important to the institution. But moving ideas into the marketplace is more important in the long run. Developing a reputation as an institution that promotes the translation of discoveries into useful products and services will be critical to attracting faculty, staff, and student talent. An important aspect of building that reputation is lowering the barriers for corporate partnerships. Businesses will be more prone to hire our students, create internships, sponsor more research, and, yes, make philanthropic investments.

We're also looking at intellectual property from the student and faculty standpoint. We want students and faculty to see the university as a valuable partner whose interests align with theirs. We need to ensure that our institutional policies encourage disclosure and protect faculty and student rights. Our students should be offered as much freedom as possible to run with their ideas, even if that freedom means more mistakes than successes. From the faculty perspective, too many universities sit on their IP portfolios. If we cannot parlay patents into real business activity, we should release the intellectual property to the inventors and let them run with it.

Closely related to this intellectual property discussion is the promotion and tenure culture. The three prongs of our mission—discovery, learning, and engagement—do not have to be reflected in equal proportions in the promotion and tenure process, but I believe we do need to recognize commercialization for its role in the broader engagement mission.

We also need to reflect on how commercialization aids scholarship, the foundation of all three mission elements at a research university. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that scholars who engage in commercialization can be more productive because of the new ideas and discoveries that arise from the process of teasing economic value out of new knowledge.

Conversely, some of the most significant commercialization opportunities derive from serendipitous discoveries made while performing curiosity-driven research. We need to create an environment that will encourage our researchers to be opportunistic—to take a detour toward commercialization when the opportunity arises.

As I said in my last column, Virginia Tech has made great strides in the past decade or so and now ranks among the nation's leading universities. But we have the potential for much more—particularly in shaping an environment right here in Virginia that will unleash our potential to become a global hotbed for entrepreneurship, innovation, and commercialization.

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