Triangulation: How Universities, Government, and Business Can Stir More Innovation

10/28/10

Successful innovation in the life sciences requires that three entities with fiercely independent cultures and largely non-overlapping goals—government, universities, and the private sector—have meaningful dialogues with each other. That is not happening at the moment.

Consider the cycle for creating a therapy, diagnostic or medical device. Academic research is funded largely by the federal government, using taxpayers’ money. The government’s goals are to bring concrete health benefits to society and to create economic growth through a vibrant life science industry. But most research is so impenetrable that legislators must rely on the scientists themselves to tell them what is good and what is not. This is a challenge, since the primary goals of academics are research and teaching.

A dialogue with the private sector is the obvious way to find out if a university discovery has practical implications. Unfortunately, such dialogue is rare. Universities have poorly defined mechanisms for determining what society, or even the life science industry, really needs and so, by default, they let research programs be driven by faculty interest, not society’s needs.

For there to be a dialogue, the private sector must have something to learn from the university. The investment community wants to prowl the halls looking for a juicy academic project that will give impressive returns on investment in a small number of years—a biological Google! What the life science industries want is the identification of novel drug targets, disease biomarkers and disruptive technologies; but few faculty do relevant research.

So, universities are not talking optimally either with government or the private sector. Are the government and private sector talking to each other? They could do better. Companies and investors are keenly interested in regulatory hurdles imposed by government; risk-benefit assessment set by the FDA; reimbursement policies, tax incentives and grants for small businesses. In return, government wants to hear about tax revenue, economic growth zones and job creation.

My contention is that we can dramatically optimize a three-way dialogue by creating a university-centered bio-innovation ecosystem. The structure of the ecosystem will facilitate conversations between the stakeholders and make them disciplined and productive.

Ideally, each member of the triad would improve the connection between the other two. Companies should advise government on university funding; universities should give government input on small business grants, innovation zones and regulatory science; and companies should help universities identify society’s unmet needs, which government has a responsibility to address.

This triangular structure will generate more user-driven innovation in the universities; more efficient use of clinical trial data; a marked increase in efficacious drugs coming to markets; more evidence-based regulatory frameworks; and enhanced economic growth through job creation. It will consolidate America’s place as a leader in bio-innovation.

[Editor's Note: this editorial is also being posted on QB3's website.]

Regis Kelly is the director of the The California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3) at the University of California. Follow @

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  • lesa mitchell

    Reg is always right

  • Rick

    While the thought of creating and growing the dialogue is absolutely correct I am not sure that the answer is a university centered ecosystem. Historical perspective would suggest otherwise. Examples abound in most states. NIH,DOE and NSF “centers” across the country have struggled and many have failed. That is not to say that they have all failed. In fact, there are some that have been wildly successful but those are a minority. Two thoughts – why have many failed and why have a smaller number succeeded. At the outset dialogue is important but at the end of the day it is about execution and results (accountability). Most universities fail to understand this and as a result sustainability rarely happens.

  • http://www.portablegenomics.com Patrick

    Regis, I wish my french colleagues, in France, could read your paper ! So, so true. Even worst in France.

    I am a French academic, I have innovations in mind, I am starting a company in San Diego, because in France either academics either gov. institutions didn’t want to understand my project. The industry in US seems (seems until now) to undertsand the promise of the targeted market. So I am moving my team in SoCal! Not the easiest way for a French citizen, I can tell but at least I’m being heard and being helped by entrepreneur organizations in San Diego like Connect.org.

    Rick, I share your concern being university-centric. I would suggest being driven by former academic-then-entrepreneur mentor organizations. Those mentors have surely suggestions to share.

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  • PDL

    I agree with Rick. I understand and sympathize with Regis’ interest in developing a university-based system, given his present affilitations. However, it’s not clear why a government-based or industry-based system would not be appropriate (OK, government would probably be too cumbersome, and industry would carry over their competative viewpoints). Still, alternatives should be considered.

  • http://entrepreneurshipidaho.blogspot.com Norris Krueger

    This is the triple helix model that is great vogue, especially in Europe. The only problem is that it does not work.. unless the focus on the linkages (like in the DNA molecule, the coding isn’t in the strands). The triple helix ignores the innovator/entrepreneur (Etzkowitz is quite clear that the entrepreneur is unimportant, only the institutions matter.) Of course, this is desirable to bureaucratic institutions. (@Lesa — isn’t this part of the core argument that you & Kauffman make about fixing university T2? To be a lot more entrepreneurial?)

    If you have a healthy innovation system then, yes, it looks like you have the three institutional players actively in the game. But that’s *after* you’ve grown the ecosystem. Doesn’t tell us how we got there… Post hoc ergo propter hoc?

    Entrepreneurial development is far more bottom-up than top-down. Yes, you need the major institutions but they need to serve the innovators, the entrepreneurs. As such, we need to see a focus on the bridging assets — which are largely carbon-based. Our approach should focus on the linkages between entrepreneurs, ideas and resources.. and who and how those linkages are initiated and nurtured. Let me be immodest & suggest a look at http://bit.ly/b6PO6w (especially my bridging asset section). For a more recent look at a great success story, check the U of Utah which embraced the bridging asset focus (prior to the above paper, LOL – we learned from Utah! bit.ly/buI3uU )

    Anyway, it’s an easy trap to focus only on the institutions in a top-down model — just don’t forget that bureaucracies aren’t very good at creating & nurturing entrepreneurial behavior,… at least not without our help ;)

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