It’s taken as a given that universities are integral to the innovation process. Researchers create technology, the university finds a licensee or a startup company is formed to develop the invention, and products are created that drive growth in the economy.
But that is a simplistic view of a complex system. And today, a select group of researchers from around the world is gathering at U.C. San Diego to help examine the process of university-industry interaction and technology transfer in more detail. Their focus is a series of questions—that have long been asked but have yet to be definitively answered and are of abiding interest here at Xconomy: What is the true connection between research universities and innovation, and how does it work? How does knowledge really move from the academic laboratory to industry? And are there new ways to improve and accelerate the process?
Sponsored by the Kansas City, MO-based Kauffman Foundation, the seminar is intended to help analyze a global research effort focused on what industry wants from universities, and how those goals can be achieved. The research, part of an onging multi-year study, consists of interviews and other data drawn from more than 90 companies in four countries where innovation and new technologies play a key economic role: the United States, Japan, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
“What we are trying to accomplish is for people to think about what incentivizes and supports a positive interaction between the university and industry,” says Mary Walshok, a UCSD Associate Vice Chancellor and a seminar host. The participants are “people who care about these things, and who are in a position to influence government policy in the U.S., Japan, Canada and the U.K.”
The three-day event begins with a presentation this evening by Larry Smarr, director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, which Walshok says operates as an example of university-industry “best practices.” The invited participants 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.