Supporting innovation, not just research

Tom Katsouleas, dean of Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, has a nice article, How Uncle Sam Can Support Innovation, on the Chronicle of Higher Education website about the need for an investment in translational-research education that is equivalent to the national investment in scientific research (roughly $43B per year).

Don’t mistake equivalence, in this regard, for equal financial investments but rather for investments in creating the capability to bring the fruits of $43B-worth of research all the way to the market.  In our experience, the training and support needed to get ideas moving out of research labs is a fraction of the costs of the original research.

Katsouleas’s point: “For research universities to realize their full potential in tackling global grand challenges and engaging society, revolutionary changes are needed in federal policy, educational programs, and the treatment of intellectual property.”

Perhaps most relevant is how we balance research-discovery efforts with research-translation efforts.  This is not something to be left to technology transfer offices, but rather needs to be taught to the researchers themselves.

Such an education should include performing an impact or market analysis of the student’s field; minicourses tailored to Ph.D.’s in business skills, finance and accounting, science policy, entrepreneurship, etc.; and mentoring from successful entrepreneurs and from faculty members outside the sciences on how their work is informed by and affects society at large. If one out of every five to 10 Ph.D. students were to take on that extra dimension in their training, and if start-up resources were provided for the top 20 percent, the total cost would be on the order of 1 percent of the federal basic research budget. But the multiplier of the benefits to the economy and for society would be far greater.

Obviously, I agree with what Katsouleas calls for, as UC Davis and its partnering sponsors have been providing this training to PhDs and postdocs (and faculty) for the past four years through our Entrepreneurship Academies and one-year Business Development Fellows program.

The Entrepreneurship Academies are 5-day workshops in which researchers learn to identify, develop, and share the commercial potential of their particular research. The curriculum has been developed over 4 years of these workshops, and brings researchers together with venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, IP and new venture law firms, and others in the entrepreneurial networks they will need access to if they decide to move their ideas forward.  The Business Development Fellowships support PhD candidates and Postdocs to spend a year at the UC Davis Graduate School of Management, where they take classes on commercialization and work alongside business students to develop university technologies (their own and others).

And Katsouleas is right, every scientist should be exposed to this curriculum because without the active involvement of the researcher there is little hope that their findings will reach beyond the published paper.  This training should not be seen as avarice on the part of universities hoping to cash in on scientific “inventions,” but rather as a commitment to seeing their research efforts through to their ultimate goal: the benefit of our benefactors—society.