How colleges can 'de-risk' innovation
As millennials graduate and young Generation Z students begin to fill college classrooms, schools must adapt to students who grew up in a time of ever-changing technology, who are not afraid to experiment, and who often expect to work for themselves after they graduate, administrators say.
Students need to learn not only about running a business, but how to test ideas and create products, whether physical or digital, that sell. And those lessons in innovation may be as important as ones in traditional college courses, some say.
Meanwhile, many colleges, especially large research universities, see a strong need to get faculty into the entrepreneurship game. Like students, professors may have sound concepts, but no idea how to commercialize them.
“It’s really critical that universities play a lead role in innovation and startups,” said William Tucker, executive director of Innovation Access at the University of California, Davis. “There’s a lot less research and development at major companies, and Gen Zers realize they probably won’t get those jobs right out of college. They have to make their own futures. These are kids who see people creating new technology, and think ‘I could do that too.’ ”
That may mean providing incubator space for students to work and collaborate with others on new ideas. “If we don’t pushing research and development no one is,” Tucker said. “The corporations aren’t doing that anymore. They are expensive and may not lead to anything. Basic R&D happens at universities now.”
UC Davis, for example, recently helped faculty member Tony Simon co-launch a startup company to develop video games that act as “digital medicine” for treating children with cognitive impairments, as well as people with cognitive limitations resulting from brain injury or aging.
The company, Cognivive, is built on research by Simon, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science, and others showing that playing action video games can enhance players’ spatiotemporal cognitive abilities.
Big corporations tend to adopt new products by buying successful startups, Tucker said, and universities can play a big role by “de-risking” the innovations of both students and staff to the point they will be consumed by larger companies. UC Davis encourages students to work on business ideas as part of the academic experience, and teaches them about running a business. But it generally doesn’t put money behind student startups.
However, the university will provide up to $50,000 in promising research by faculty members to start a business. It also offers wraparound services, such as training in business development and proof of concept, to help attract outside venture capital.
Last year, the state gave each UC campus $2.2 million to drive innovation and entrepreneurship; UC Davis is spending the funds on facility and equipment upgrades.
Administrators must be smart about which staff projects to support, Tucker said. “There is a risk of giving everyone a little bit and nothing gets done,” he said. “There can be a tendency in academics to think everyone is a special snowflake, but you have to be strategic about which things you support and which you don’t.”
The University of Maryland moved in that direction, hiring Julie Lenzer about a year ago to serve as associate vice president of innovation and economic development and co-director of UM Ventures. “I was hired to unleash innovation among faculty,” she said. “We’ve done a good job with students, but we have faculty with great ideas who we weren’t helping them get those ideas in the ecosystem.”
Maryland faculty would often encourage students to attend conferences or innovation fairs, but “they don’t want to stand in line with students,” Lenzer said.
“Their needs are different,” she said. “They are incredibly tenured and they love research. They know tech, they just don’t know the business side of it.”
Faculty often know much about subjects that have a market but few people understand, such as quantum physics.
Maryland physics professor Christopher Monroe, for instance, co-founded UMC-based startup IonQ, Inc., that is developing and commercializing the world’s first fully-expressive, full-stack quantum computer, based on trapped atomic ions.
"He understood the materials and the needs," Lenzer said. "What he needed was a boost starting a business."
The university looks for innovations that might be commercialized and will give faculty the time to work on ideas, as well as help ensure they don’t run into conflicts of interest. An on-campus business incubator for both students and faculty is in the works, Lenzer said.
“We want them to test as many ideas as possible, no matter the subject,” said Dean Chang, associate vice president for innovation and entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland. “The idea is to teach them to fail faster and fail forward more quickly. We want them to look at their ideas from different perspectives, to have empathy for users. It’s not really about starting a company; there’s already a fantastic program for starting companies. We focus on how to refine and develop ideas.”
As innovation and entrepreneurship becomes increasingly in vogue with students, Chang said UM could include a class about “thinking critically and inventive design” to its general education requirements.
“One of the things I’m most proud of is moving in the direction of getting all 35,000 of our students to be engaged in entrepreneurship and innovation,” he said. “It forces you to rethink, ‘What are we doing? How do we get there? How do you make is accessible to all students?’ ”
A public obligation
As a large public institution, Indiana University has an obligation to help launch research and discovery in the forms of new software or medical treatments, for example, into the marketplace, said David Gard, associate vice president of university economic engagement.
“Not just marketing to large companies, but helping faculty with startups and entrepreneurship,” Gard said. “How can we use our research to benefit the state via smaller companies or licensing to larger companies? New jobs create a better economy, and we want to get better businesses into the eco system.”
The school helped David Landy, a professor at Indiana University Bloomington, found a company to make math learning easier.
He researches the cognitive mechanisms behind mathematical thinking, and co-launched Graspable, who’s flagship tech, Graspable Math, allows children to learn math in a more intuitive environment and allows teachers to more effectively track progress.
Indiana University provides initial financial support for startup companies launched by faculty or alumni that have market potential. It also will connect faculty and student entrepreneurs to potential investors or mentors.
“A lot of what we do is relationship based,” Gard said. “We’re really trying to leverage the relationships we have with community businesses and governments to connect with startups. We can help bring all of the stakeholders together. That is one of the most important roles on the university. In all of this.”