5 Keys to Keeping UW Among the World’s Most Innovative Universities

The University of Washington is the most innovative public university in the world, according to a ranking from Reuters that came out this week—and rightly added some swagger to the step of leaders on Montlake.

As with all such lists, however, the Reuters Top 100 World’s Most Innovative Universities ranking is backward-looking, based on a sophisticated view of patent activity and academic journal publications from 2008 to 2013. (Some patent and article citation activity was counted through July of this year.) The important question is how will the UW maintain its mojo in the years to come?

Below, I’ve listicled five key questions at the UW that will influence the UW’s place among the innovative elite. There are, of course, others. (Let me know about important ones I’ve missed.)

First, a bit more about the Reuters ranking. The UW was the fourth most innovative university on the list, trailing private innovation powerhouses Stanford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Harvard University. The UW’s innovation “score” of 1,576 was only 14 points ahead of the next public institution on the list, the University of Michigan System.

Reuters rightly cites the difficulty of measuring “innovation,” which means different things to different organizations. In recent years, the leadership at the UW placed a great deal of emphasis on the number of startup companies spun out of the university (in addition to patent activity) as a “barometer” of how it’s doing on several scores, including innovation and local economic impact. Xconomy’s own analysis of those results found questionable methods for counting startups and unsubstantiated statements of startup job creation.

The Reuters ranking did not factor in startup formation or licensing activity in its innovation ranking, but did repeat the UW’s own statements on startup formation in a brief profile attached to the ranking.

A lot has changed at the UW in the last year, starting at the top, which brings me to a list of open questions influencing innovation at the UW going forward.

Cauce, center, talks with Gov. Jay Inslee, left, and Young, at a UW startup celebration in 2014.

Cauce, center, talks with Gov. Jay Inslee, left, and Young, at a UW startup celebration in 2014.

Who’s in charge? Michael Young, the erstwhile UW president who led the startup push, departed unexpectedly early this year to head Texas A&M University. Interim President Ana Mari Cauce, previously the UW Provost, has largely stayed the course as a committee searches for a permanent president. If you believe leadership matters, than the individual selected for the UW’s top job—be it Cauce or someone else—will have a major influence on innovation and commercialization, both in terms of overall tone and emphasis, and through specific programs he or she decides to support and fund.

Will objects in CoMotion stay in motion? The UW organization responsible for technology and intellectual property transfer has a new name and a much broader and more ambitious mandate. Under the leadership of Vikram Jandhyala, appointed by Young in 2014 to the new position of vice provost of innovation, CoMotion aims to usher university innovations into the community through a variety of channels—not just licensing and startups—and to imbue the campus and curriculum with more entrepreneurial thinking.

Jandhyala

Jandhyala

That’s a dramatic change from past priorities. The UW did not hold its regular fete this summer for startups formed in the last academic year, though it’s still counting them and plans to announce startup activity as part of a broader set of metrics that reflect the broader mission, Jandhyala told me.

In my observation, CoMotion under Jandhyala’s leadership is indeed making strides with things like a new maker space, “pre-packaged IP” agreements to streamline industry collaboration, support for university-wide programs like Urban@UW, and the GIX (see next item).

GIX Exterior Rendering

Rendering of a Bellevue building that would house the GIX.

Got the gist of the GIX? With $40 million from Microsoft, the UW and Tsinghua University—dubbed China’s MIT—are creating a new model for graduate education, to be based in Bellevue, WA, called the Global Innovation Exchange. Its initial degree program is a master’s in technology innovation, now expected to begin in fall 2017—a year later than initially planned when the GIX was announced in June. I expect to see the GIX highlighted during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Seattle next week. He is, after all, among Tsinghua’s most prominent alumni.

It will be interesting to watch how the UW allocates resources to fulfill the ambitious international mission of the GIX, and the degree to which that competes with resources in high-demand departments such as computer science on its flagship campus across Lake Washington. (The UW has said no state funding will be devoted to the GIX. But top faculty are heavily involved in GIX curriculum development and leadership. For example, professor-entrepreneur Shwetak Patel, a leader in hot fields such as connected devices, has a new role as the chief technology officer of the GIX.)

A related question, which will directly factor into future rankings like the Reuters Top 100 World’s Most Innovative Universities list, is how any intellectual property created through the GIX will be shared among the participating institutions. Tsinghua University, by the way, was the only Chinese university on the Reuters list, coming in at 72nd.

What’s your IP policy? The UW is in the midst of a wholesale review of its intellectual property policies. When a committee set out on this effort with a series of listening sessions in the spring, the goal was to “create the model IP policy for the 21st century research university,” in the words of Interim Provost Gerald Baldasty. The rules governing the development and transfer of university innovation and expertise, in the form of patents, copyrights, and licensing activity, will directly influence the UW’s impact on the innovation economy locally and beyond—not to mention its score in rankings like the one from Reuters.

The monetization of IP policy, in particular, is a timely topic, now that the UW must fund its technology transfer activities without the once-in-a-generation cash gusher that was the Benjamin Hall biotech patents.

Not beautiful from the outside.

Startup Hall

How Innovative is your U District? The neighborhood around the University of Washington—the U-District—is undergoing a profound physical transformation, with the arrival of big city transit, a blossoming of new dorm buildings, and a new front door for the UW to the startup community in the form of Startup Hall. These are some of the first manifestations of an “Innovation District,” which UW leaders hope will attract industry to the edge of campus, fostering closer working relationships with academic researchers and students.

Much of this will depend on what private landowners decide to do with U District properties. Will they build commercial space suitable for businesses that want to be near a research university? Or will the UW do it itself? It’s fair to expect that the physical proximity would encourage greater collaboration—perhaps increasing industry citations of UW patents, which factored into the Reuters rankings.

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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