Kauffman Seminar Asks How Universities Can Improve Innovation

3/12/09Follow @bvbigelow

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include Alan Hughes, director of the Centre for Business Research and Margaret Thatcher Professor of Enterprise Studies at the Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, Kiyoshi Kurokawa, science advisor to the Prime Minister of Japan and professor, National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, and Philip Auerswald of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

As a prelude to the event, I prepared a Q&A with Philip Ternouth of the Council for Industry and Higher Education in London, England. As the council’s associate director of R&D and Knowledge Transfer, Ternouth has been closely involved in the global research effort. Our exchange has been edited for clarity.

Q: How did you get started on this particular project, and why?

It started at the end of a research project in 2006 that examined the different ways in which companies perceive the benefits they gain from interactions with universities. A number of the cases suggested we did not understand at a system level how people found appropriate partners, decided how to work together, and how different types of interaction impact company value chains. So we decided to try to find funding to carry out this research.

Q: Do we really know that universities fuel innovation?

The whole point of the project was to build on the findings of the 2006 project and to get a better idea of what industry does get from universities. I would not describe this as “universities fueling innovation.” A proposition I would buy more easily is, “universities being a supporting part of the innovation ecosystem.”

Q: One of the common tenets about innovation is that it takes place in proximity to research institutions. What does your research show?

Universities can have direct and indirect effects on developing clusters of new business. Direct in the sense that they can provide both technology and highly knowledgeable people for both technology-based and high-value service business. Indirect in that they also attract talent and help develop a cultural environment in which people want to live. We do argue that proximity to universities for small companies is likely to affect partner selection and possibly even the propensity to work with a university in the first place. Larger companies tend to have the reach and capacity to deal at a distance and are more likely to belong to global networks and therefore tend to have more scope in deliberate partner selection.

Q: The draft study casts doubt on the usefulness of counting university patents as a way of measuring a research institution’s contribution to innovation. Why?

Because we have shown that contribution of universities to innovation is much broader than patented technology. Too much focus on counting patents as a university’s main contribution to innovation may be misleading. But more to the point is that it’s likely to distort behavior, if it is carried to the point of over-protecting or overvaluing university technology. That could damage university relationships with business. But it is the use of patents as the main or sole metric that is damaging.

Q: What do you hope this work will accomplish?

By understanding the range and mechanisms of interaction and how they generate value much better we get a much better idea of the rate limiting steps and dependencies in the systems through which opportunities to work together are recognized and realized. We can therefore adopt interventions that address the dependencies in the market system. So, for example, the return on the substantial investment made in the “supply side”—developing the capacity and capability of university knowledge transfer—is dependent on the capacity and capability of companies, “the demand side,” to work with it. Policies need to reflect this and put as much emphasis on stimulating the development of capacity in businesses as in the incentives and capacity for universities to work with them. Quite simply, a better understanding of the interactions in the system provides a platform for more intelligent policies both publicly and institutionally.

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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  • parktemp

    Year 2009.

    Given that we started having some semblance of a civilization after 1960.

    That is still almost a half century ago.

    Do we not still know what Universities can do to “improve innovation”! Have Universities only been producing papers recycling ideas from Greek time?

    This issues should have been tackled by all those smart people way before…as a starting point. No wonders we do not really have something that is truly revolutionary (do not consider Xbox, cell phone, HD TV, Viagra, etc., as such).