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January / February 2010
From David Skorton
Building an Innovation Ecosystem
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Tuesday, 12 January 2010

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.

ImageNew 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
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Comments (7)Add Comment
written by Margaret (Molly) Mead, January 15, 2010
Delighted to see that Cornell is playing a central role in stimulating cultures of innovation. I direct a center for community engagement at Amherst College, where I argue that we need to develop social entrepreneurship skills in our students as a key way to solve public problmes.
written by Ralph Deeds, January 15, 2010
There's an interesting article in the January-February Atlantic by James Fallows who recently spent a couple of years in China. He is optimistic about the future of the U.S. vis-a-vis China for several reasons. He said he met a lot of expatriates from the United States and Europe in China, but almost none who planned to immigrate and stay permanently there. Almost all were there temporarily for specific business or other purposes. In contrast, Fallows pointed to the fact that one-quarter of the members of the National Academy of Sciences were born abroad, an indication that America, much more than China and most other countries, still attracts many of the best and the brightest immigrants from around the world. Here's a link to the article Unfortunately, to access it I think you have to be an Atlantic subscriber.
written by Roger Martin Davis, January 15, 2010
David Skorton, I applaud your efforts and focus in harnessing the educationation capital of Cornell University in promoting an "innovation ecosystem". Having attended the CU - College of Human Ecology I am highly sensitive to the functioning of human social interactions, human developmental processes and the nexus between the biological matrix and cognitive and intellectural matrix in promoting enterprise, innovation, technological advancement or a coherent strategy for sustainable development, both within the public or private sector economies. Currently, as CEO/Chancellor of the Ikologiks Center for Global Studies I work daily with globalization issues from the "ground-level" view to the battling with the top echelons of our emerging global society. My sense, having lived and taught at two Universities in South Korea (Keimyoung & Youngsan) between 2003-2006 and now living three years in India, is there is a disconnect in consciousness as it pertains to economic focuses in driving globalization and the greater human/civic consequences. So I think highly of your efforts in association with NYS Govenor's office, however, I must suggest that a true innovation ecosystem must not leave out the interests of civic society, nor the importance of elevation in consciousness, spirituality and human transformation. Finally, I might also add that with my experiences both in South Korea & India there seems among students and businesses in those countries a competitive edge rooted in national pride/identity and a determined interest in rising to the top. Unfortunately, in contrast America is increasing becoming a divided nation, and we no longer seek to be at the "top" since we perceive we are "already there". The arrogance that promotes is often seen not only in our foreign policy, domestic politics, but in the assumption that American business is "divinely ordained" in continuing to lead the world. We must rethink the entire equation and certainly an innovation ecosystem is a good start!
written by David Morthland, January 16, 2010
I was really excited when I saw the title/subject of your message this month. How disappointed I was after I read it and read it again and again, at least four times.

I think I can comprehend the"ultimate conclusion" of the task force as stated at the outset, also the finding about state level needs.

But when it I got to the higher education part of the message's "findings", I got lost among the superlatives and buzzwords of "sustainable", "empowered champion", "leverage", "quality of interactions", "strategic" this and "strategic" that and the lack of any real definition or explanation as to how anything is really going to get done. It raised a most basic question. "What does "innovation ecosystem" really mean?"

Upon reflection this all seems more than a bit ironic considering that this issue of the magazine also contains a most interesting feature article "Word Perfect" on Strunk's "Elements of Style".

But most important, in my plain speak sort of way, is the absence of any finding about the undisputed and undeniable fact of hostile anti business, anti capitalist attitude throughout much of academia today. This absence, I simply cannot comprehend.

I believe the failure to confront this aggressive bias ( or should I say virus) is shocking. It exists everywhere, reflected in the classroom influencing students from grade school to graduate school. It is of pandemic proportion. Academic leadership's silence on the topic is deafening. Sadly, Cornell University is no exception.

Even more shocking is the business community's tolerance of this total lack of attention as it continues to give millions and millions of dollars to academic institutions which turn right around continually sponsoring activities, supporting candidates and legislation, developing policies and scribing doctrine replete with anti business purpose and anti business sentiment.

Perhaps at some point the economy will become bad enough that business will wake up and stop supporting those institutions which continue this course. Unfortunately, it seems nothing will happen to curtail it short of that.

How refreshing it would be to see just one major academic institution acknowledge the truth, make a finding, take a stand, and in turn, pledge to an action plan to do something about it. Maybe others would then follow and a real innovation ecosystem could begin to germinate. Without confronting this major hurdle openly and forcefully nothing will happen no matter what the rhetoric, no matter what the spin, "empowered champions" notwithstanding. In the meantime academia's silence on the subject remains deafening. The work of your task force substantiates it. How unfortunate!

David W. Morthland
Class of 1962
written by Robert Hastings, January 16, 2010
This is an article which is difficult to follow. The title iteself is confusing: Building an Innovation Ecosystem". Is the goal an ecosystem for innovation, or to build an innovative ecosystem or what? Reading the article it is clear that the expertise of the author is in business, but I find no specifics, no concrete concepts or even a definition of what is meant by "ecosystem". Efforts to develop innovation always seem disappointing to me. I guess Thomas Edison was innovative not because of some state-wide program to guide him to become innovative. So, I would like to see from an obviously very experienced person real recommendations to a clearly defined problem with stated results.
written by Burt L. Swersey, January 16, 2010
David Morthland talks about academia being hostile to business. I would rather call it "clueless" and uncomfortable. I have been teaching design and innovation at RPI for the past 20 years. Prior to that I started 4 companies making medical equipment.
I teach Inventor's Studio, where engineering students find unrecognized needs, define and understand the users and the needs and then provide solutions. Emphasis is on first finding the needs without being told what to do, then following a structured process to create a technological solution. The engineering students also write their own patent applications and create a business plan, without help from MBA's.
Several new businesses have started in the class, including, a direct sustainable replacement for Styrofoam and Bullex Digital Safety, new fire extinguisher training systems.
Our students are motivated to make the world a better place. They need strong support, encouragement and some "seed money". NCIIA, has been a key supporter of the course and of the student teams.
More exposure to faculty with industrial experience would certainly help spark innovation and new ventures from our students. They are so smart and passionate about creating meaningful innovations. A little more encouragement can really make a difference.
I would be happy to share details of my experience with others.
written by Ralph Coryell, January 16, 2010
Bullseye, David Morthland!

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Last Updated ( Tuesday, 12 January 2010 )