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Universities as Drivers of Innovation

Mark Marich

The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF) recently sponsored a Capitol Hill briefing called “Enhancing Universities’ Role in Innovation.” Our report of the event follows:

The featured proposal of this briefing outlined how the federal government can help formulate a scalable model for commercializing the technology developed in university research labs. A diverse group convened for the presentation, which included representatives from academia, the White House, Congress, and the private sector.

Moderator Rob Atkinson, President of ITIF, noted how in the 1970s and 1980s, most innovation in the United States was funded by large private corporations. However, two thirds of current innovation arises from collaborations that include universities and federal laboratories. Citing the successes of the University of Southern California and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Atkinson explained that the current challenge lies in raising many more U.S. universities to this higher level.

Krisztina Holly, who serves as Vice Provost for Innovation at the University of Southern California, specifically outlined how this proposal would help accomplish this goal. In its first stage, a federally funded pilot program would invest in ten different sites with university partnerships, providing key resources such as proof of concept funds to these "innovation ecosystems." The goal of this stage would be to identify best practices in technology transfer and commercialization in the context of universities. It would also develop the necessary metrics for capturing the impact of this innovation. Upon appropriate review, this model could be then scaled across the United States.

Holly also described how this program seeks to identify and overcome the cultural barriers that often impede successful partnerships between universities, entrepreneurs and their sources of funding. George Vradenburg, Vice-Chairman of the Chesapeake Crescent Initiative (CCI), also echoed this need to bridge the cultural gaps between different stakeholders. During his remarks, he specifically discussed how the CCI seeks to develop the "great innovating potential" of the Maryland-Virginia-DC area, providing an example of how this region could benefit from the proposed program.

Tom Kalil, Deputy Director for Policy, Office of Science & Technology Policy, weighed in with the White House's perspective on the topic. He noted that the White House does not yet have an official position on the proposal, but that it is in line with many of the administration's goals. He praised the fact that this proposal would be relatively straightforward to implement, while also building on the strengths of America's research universities and the nation's entrepreneurial culture.

Congressman David Wu, who serves on several relevant committees in the House (including the House Committee on Science and Technology), provided an overview of recent Congressional activity relating to innovation. He noted that Speaker Pelosi has played a key role in helping develop the current innovation agenda in the House, which includes the reauthorization of the Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) program.

Overall, the speakers underscored how streamlining the process of innovation remains a critical process to America's economic strength, job growth, quality of life, and global competitiveness.  Vrandenbourg noted that improving the innovation system in the U.S. represents a problem "of enormous scale and urgency." In a similar vein, Holly of USC underscored how fostering such communities of discovery "should not be left to chance."

[Reported by Marianne Sierocinski]


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