Education & Tech Transfer: Embracing Risk, Cutting Strings

I’m striking some flints this morning, trying to generate a spark. Two things in particular that I’m knocking together …

A few days ago, Mike posted on his effort to share some thoughts with the Pittsburgh community about the ingredients for successful economic development in “the new high technology world order.” He wrote a strong and provocative op-ed. Noting that Pittsburgh has great capacity to generate ideas (in excellent universities), seed businesses with venture capital, and lead them with a strong CEO culture, Mike focuses on two things Pittsburgh appears to lack: (1) a deep enough bench of managerial talent beneath the CEO level, and (2) tech transfer (i.e., licensing) shops at the universities that will “make a lot of small bets” with confidence that a few will do well (while most fail), rather than “negotiat[ing] every deal like it’s the next home run.” Mike’s analysis seems quite sensible to me. It prompts me to ask, what are some the things that push a university tech transfer office to focus most on “generating revenue” (which “means making sure that in each deal, the university’s risk is minimized and its upside is well-protected”), in preference to Mike’s recommended strategy (“Play small ball”)?

This morning, the New York Times published this story, seemingly prompted by a National Academy of Sciences report published last week, entitled “Rising Above The Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future.” The story, and the report, give voice to the concern that the U.S. may lose its innovation edge to nations such as India, China, Taiwan, and South Korea, which graduate more PhDs in science and engineering or spend more on R&D.

The tiny spark is below the fold …

Mike’s op-ed and the Times story overlap, and the common patch is the university as idea lab, and vigorous science and math education more generally. So, here’s a thought: Business should demand, and directly invest dollars in, excellent primary, secondary, and post-secondary science and math education. This excellent education system will attract the managing class, who want to provide their children with that education (and the increased opportunity it promises). That’s good for business. In driving money investment in college and university educaiton, the CEOs and other leaders Mike talks about can also help relieve some of the pressure on tech transfer offices to chase every last dollar in every deal. (Interesting sub-thought: Perhaps local business could create a foundation that would fully fund the tech transfer offices at the universities, so that those offices would not be pressured to pay their own way with licensing deals.) They can also help ensure that at least some research is conducted at the most basic, impractical, “big sky” levels, by fostering a culture of community obligation to support the basic university missions of education and exploration. Such business investment in higher ed with no strings attached, like more aggressive outbound university licensing with less demanding terms, embraces risk and the wisdom of many small bets. This appeals to me because I share Mike’s view: “A new technology economy grows from the bottom, not from the top.”