Building an Innovation Ecosystem

Is America losing its mojo?" asked Fareed Zakaria in a recent Newsweek column on business innovation. Our scientists, he noted, still win the lion's share of Nobel prizes, but the U.S. had dropped to sixth overall in innovation and competitiveness, behind Singapore, Sweden, Luxemburg, Denmark, and South Korea, and had made the least progress of […]

Is America losing its mojo?" asked Fareed Zakaria in a recent Newsweek column on business innovation. Our scientists, he noted, still win the lion's share of Nobel prizes, but the U.S. had dropped to sixth overall in innovation and competitiveness, behind Singapore, Sweden, Luxemburg, Denmark, and South Korea, and had made the least progress of thirty-nine countries in improving innovation capacity and international competitiveness.

How can the U.S. address this problem—and what can universities do to help? In my July/August 2009 column, I reported on Governor David Paterson's newly created Task Force on Diversifying the New York State Economy Through Industry-Higher Education Partnerships, which I have had the honor to serve as chair. In this column, I will share some of the task force's key findings in the hope that they may foster a more robust innovation ecosystem in New York State and also point the way toward more effective academic-industry collaboration nationally.

New York is home to more than 300 colleges and universities, which account for more than $4 billion in research and development expenditures. Yet the task force found that the state's major research universities, including Cornell, do not live up to their potential in terms of business partnership and entrepreneurial activity. To address that problem, the task force sought to articulate the elements of a functioning innovation ecosystem and the methods by which those elements could be strengthened. We concluded that, ultimately, converting New York into a thriving innovation ecosystem is going to take a fundamental reorientation toward entrepreneurship, commercialization, and collaboration on the part of government, industry, higher education, and the investment community.

At the state level, we identified a need to make new business creation and talent attraction and retention central elements of New York's economic development policies. Toward this end, the state's economic development agencies should employ peer review and likely return on investment, rather than geographical or political considerations, as the primary criteria for programs related to university-industry investment. In addition, economic development funding should be prioritized toward strategic areas where New York already has substantial university and corporate strengths, including energy, nanotechnology, health care and life sciences, and agriculture and the food industry.

Within higher education, we saw a need for university leadership at the highest level to promote entrepreneurship and strengthen ties with the corporate sector. We recommended the designation of an on-campus "empowered champion" to help faculty and students develop their entrepreneurial skills, bring promising ideas to the attention of potential industry partners, and leverage alumni resources to provide access to capital. We also recommended changing the emphasis of university intellectual property policy from seeking to maximize licensing income to maximizing the number and quality of interactions with targeted industries.

Changes in industry policy would also foster more effective collaborations with higher education. The task force recommended that industry "pull" relevant research from universities by jointly identifying their needs for pre-competitive research and communicating those needs to relevant experts at universities, rather than waiting for faculty members to approach them with products or processes of potential commercial value.

In addition, the task force saw a need to provide the raw materials for an innovation ecosystem, including broadband Internet access, meeting space, strategic management (perhaps through a state-level Innovation Advisory Council), seed funding to bridge the "valley of death" between the development of a technology and its ability to generate a sustainable revenue stream for a company, and incentives and effective business services to make investment in aspiring entrepreneurs more attractive.

Building a robust innovation ecosystem will pay off in many tangible ways: in more powerful research in fields of direct relevance to our everyday lives; in new high-technology businesses that leverage the ideas of our students and faculty and build New York's reputation as a center of innovation; in higher-paying jobs, more vibrant colleges and universities, and an economy more resilient to future economic shocks; and in increased tax revenues to support programs and services that benefit all New Yorkers.

As New York's land-grant university, Cornell has a responsibility to lead the state in technology commercialization. I hope that the recommendations of the Governor's Task Force will enable us to enhance our efforts in this area. At the national level, through the Business Higher Education Forum, the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Initiative, and other means, I will continue to champion higher education's potential for even greater contribution to an innovation ecosystem that drives sustainable economic growth.

— President David Skorton
david.skorton@cornell.edu

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