Changes at UC San Diego Emphasize New Role as “Innovation Engine”

A new program intended to teach engineering and business students how to drive innovations from concept to commercialization reflects a new imperative at UC San Diego. The business of tech transfer, which generates revenue by licensing technologies invented at UC San Diego, is giving way to a broader mission for the university as an engine of innovation and as a training ground for entrepreneurs and startup leaders.

One example of the changes underway can be found with the Institute of the Global Entrepreneur (IGE), a program UC San Diego created about a year ago, just as the von Liebig Entrepreneurism Center was unwinding its longtime operation as a tech transfer hub for the Jacobs School of Engineering. But the IGE is only the latest in a series of recent initiatives that are focused on boosting innovation and entrepreneurship at UC San Diego, which sees itself increasingly as a kind of farm club feeding the regional startup ecosystem with people and ideas.

How well these changes play out remains to be seen. The IGE only recently enrolled its first five teams (including one team led by nanoengineering doctoral candidate Rajan Kumar, pictured above.) As part-incubator and part-accelerator, the institute provides each team with as much as $50,000 in financial support over the course of a 12-month program, which could eventually become the curriculum for a master’s degree in entrepreneurship. The state of California provided $2.2 million last year to bankroll IGE programs throughout the University of California system, with funding for UC San Diego amounting to $300,000. The San Diego Legler Benbough Foundation provided an additional $500,000.

In some ways, the IGE represents a reboot of the von Liebig center’s mission to help commercialize innovations conceived in the engineering school. But the new program is casting a broader net, according to Sujit Dey, a professor of computer science at UC San Diego who also serves as IGE’s founding director.

For one thing, Dey said the IGE is seeking collaborators and innovations beyond the engineering school, particularly in health sciences and at the Rady School of Management, which oversees the IGE program in collaboration with the Jacobs School of Engineering. Dey, who founded the San Diego video technology company Ortiva Wireless, said he also wants IGE to encourage fundamental changes in the way scientists approach their research at UC San Diego by encouraging them to “look at the market first,” and to provide students with the kind of training in management, leadership, and entrepreneurship skills that startups require.

To avoid the trap of developing “cool” technology that has no market, Dey said IGE teams will be required to test their prototypes with would-be customers and potential strategic partners to make sure their innovations are relevant and have strong commercial appeal.

In this respect, the IGE and other recent programs at UC San Diego reflect a broader trend that has been under way for years at American research universities. As Xconomy Seattle Editor Benjamin Romano has explored in depth at the University of Washington, big research universities have been working to revamp their offices of technology transfer and moving to take a much more active role in fostering innovation and entrepreneurship beyond the traditional enclaves of engineering, computer science, and the life sciences.

At UC San Diego, this means being “very much engaged in the economic development of this region,” according to Paul Roben, who was named associate vice chancellor for innovation and commercialization at UC San Diego two years ago. To Roben, the university is an economic engine of “talent and technologies, people and ideas.”

Beyond the traditional academic mission of providing education and conducting basic research, Roben said UC San Diego has been expanding its mission to encompass innovation and entrepreneurship, “primarily because so many people out there are creating their own jobs.”

While UC San Diego has long served as a hotbed for local innovation and entrepreneurship (the Connect program in innovation and entrepreneurship started in 1985 as part of UCSD), Roben and Dey said many of the changes began after Pradeep Khosla was named … Next Page »

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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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