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Officials explain why university investment in tech commercialization is here to stay

At a panel at Penn Wednesday night, higher education officials discussed why schools keep throwing money at innovation efforts.

Yale's Jon Soderstrom, left, and Penn's John Swartley talk about the role of universities in today's innovation economy. (Photo by Adam Bender)

The importance of universities as anchor institutions for supporting technology entrepreneurship will continue to grow, said higher education officials during a roundtable discussion Wednesday evening at the University of Pennsylvania.
Innovation leaders from Penn and four other top U.S. universities described how their schools promote entrepreneurship, including through the establishment of incubators and strategic partnerships with the private sector. The talk was hosted by the Penn Institute for Urban Research and the Penn Center for Innovation.

I don't think there's any stuffing this genie back into the bottle.

Excitement about entrepreneurship in higher education is “not a flash in the pan,” said Alan Thomas, director of the Center for Technology Development and Ventures at the University of Chicago. “It’s just going to get bigger and bigger and bigger.”
“I don’t think there’s any stuffing this genie back into the bottle,” agreed John Swartley, executive director of the Penn Center for Innovation at the University of Pennsylvania. “I think you can expect this just to grow.”
Next year, the University of Pennsylvania plans to open an incubator, the Pennovation Center, at the school’s new “South Bank” campus on the former 23-acre DuPont property in Grays Ferry.
“That’s going to be a site where a lot of these interactive activities between researchers and the private sector can happen in real time,” said Swartley. “It’s the laboratory where these commercialization activities can be capitalized and experimented on.”
The University of California, San Francisco — one of the nation’s top med schools — has formed alliances with several major companies, including Bayer and Merck in the pharmaceutical space, and Google and Samsung in the IT sector, said Jim Kiriakis, the school’s interim director of innovation.
The private sector has embraced alliances with universities as a way to innovate while saving money on research and development, he said. “R&D from the industry is down. They’re spending less [and] trying to be efficient.”
The nimble entrepreneurs at universities can shake up large corporations’ business-as-usual conservatism, said Thomas. “Corporations are getting ever more cognizant that they’re really good at doing things that are predictable and repeatable,” he said, “and that is the antithesis of innovation.”
Too much is being made of universities being the driver.

Universities are “talent magnets,” and “that becomes like a honeypot to a lot of our constituents,” Thomas added.
Other speakers cautioned that while universities can be a great resource to startups, they should not be viewed as a magic elixir for success.
Todd Sherer, the executive director of tech transfer at Emory University, warned that mere access to resources does not guarantee a startup’s success.
“We’ve ignored the fact that companies might still fail because their product will never get through, or because nobody will ever buy it when it gets on the market, or the management team will never be successful no matter how much coaching you give them,” he said.
There is no formula that guarantees success, agreed Jon Soderstrom, managing director of the Office of Cooperative Research at Yale University. “Too much is being made of universities being the driver,” he said. “It doesn’t take a university to do this. It takes a culture that values creativity and entrepreneurship.”
Building successful companies is not “an engineering problem” but an “art form,” Soderstrom said. “It’s the art of getting the right things together at the right time at the right place.”

Companies: University of Pennsylvania

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