The Entrepreneurial University

A look at some institutions are coping with having to balance their traditional commitment to learning, basic research and community outreach with a demanding technology transfer mission. Roger L. Geiger and Creso Sá, Tapping the Riches of Science: Universities and the Promise of Economic Growth (Harvard University Press, 2009)

The core academic mission of American universities has been significantly influenced by an intense obligation to demonstrate economic relevance. In an era of increased economic competitiveness, spotted with critical periods of economic uncertainty, state universities are expected to focus even more of their intellectual energies towards strengthening the U.S. economy. As such, the scope and function of American universities in the 21st century extends well beyond the roles of teaching, curiosity-driven research, and community service. These institutions contend with the awesome responsibility of balancing the traditional commitment to learning with a demanding technology transfer mission. Tapping the Riches of Science: Universities and the Promise of Economic Growth (2008), written by Roger L. Geiger and Creso Sá, is a timely, well-researched publication that sheds light on the complexity of American universities’ involvement with economic relevance. 

Exploring the relationship between universities and industry is an important part of Tapping the Riches of Science. Geiger and Sá suggest that in an effort to engage industry at a more substantive level American universities have carved out two distinctive paths to innovation: one for small firms and university spin-offs that seize single innovations and attempt to develop them into marketable products and another for oligopolistic corporations with huge internal R&D labs . This bifurcated perspective provides an understanding of how entrepreneurial universities and their industry partners relate differently to each other across diverse industries, as well as the scope of challenges that befall various types of university-industry collaborations.

The innovation track for small companies and spin-offs brings to bear issues regarding university patenting and licensing as well as matters relevant to the small technology companies that attempt to commercialize most university intellectual property. Geiger and Sá discuss the strengths and limitations of scientific and technological small firms and spin-offs. However, they pay special attention to the university spin-offs capacity to contribute to innovation, particularly in the field of biotechnology. The authors maintain that building a connection between highly productive scientists, major research universities, and firms is key to economic development and that university spin-offs play a major role in bringing these important actors together. Economic cluster formation is one of the most valuable products of this kind of collaboration, and it is within this interface that a region may experience increased market power, more efficient information sharing, growth in the number of jobs with specialized workers, an intensification of knowledge spill overs, and the development of a culture and infrastructure that enhance entrepreneurship. Indeed, the authors provide an interesting and well-informed review of the relationship between economic clusters and university innovation. 

Geiger and Sá’s discussion on the innovation track for corporate R&D focuses on the relationship between large corporations and universities. The authors provide an array of university/big corporation success stories, and they review some of the most effective strategies for developing robust working relationships. For instance, Geiger and Sá explain how Intel has avoided conflict over intellectual property rights with its university partners by following the “open collaborative research model,” which involved “accept[ing] the academy’s terms of open, publishable research on theoretically challenging themes without competition over IP rights.”  Likewise, universities assume a major role in facilitating university/big corporation collaboration. For example, MIT has an enviable record in establishing more comprehensive industry partnerships because it ensured that these collaborations provided both sides with major benefits that transcend normal university-industry interactions. The MIT approach demonstrates that deep relationships can be established between the university and big business when commitment to partnership is forged between the highest corporate officers from both sides of that partnership. 

In general, American universities have assumed a proactive role in seeking out industry partners in order to secure much needed revenue, to intensify institutional levels of academic prestige, and to fulfil their mission of demonstrating economic relevance. In particular, Geiger and Sá highlight the establishment of university-industry research centres and institutions. These centres reflect the American universities’ readiness to address their corporate sponsors’ interest in boundary-crossing, science-based research, such as biotechnology, genomics, proteomics, information technology, and nanotechnology. The authors reference units such as the Centre for Integrated Systems at Stanford University to explain how university-industry connections have been made “more intimate and more effective.”  In addition to these new organizational structures, universities have made major changes to their curriculum by including more interdisciplinary programs, as well as additional research and teaching opportunities within these science-based fields of study. 

Overall, universities have ramped up efforts at employing aggressive business-model tactics for advancing science-based research, procuring resources from corporate partners, and fostering the flow of knowledge and talent (i.e., university graduate students, academic researchers, and corporate researchers) between academia and industry. Arizona State, Cornell, the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the University of Albany are only a handful of the many universities that have made significant strides in forging long-term collaborations with major corporate partners in order to connect academic research in science-based disciplines more closely to regional needs and economic development.

However, despite these success stories, many more university-industry collaborations remain challenged. For instance, the culture of the corporate lab tends to be resistant to external inputs, such as university research.  As well, many corporations may prefer to develop partnerships with offshore research institutions that provide higher (or comparable) quality research services, lower costs and fewer claims on intellectual property. Geiger and Sá describe the notorious university-industry partnership forged between the former agricultural R&D unit of Novartis Corporation and the UC Berkley Department of Plant and Microbial Biology (PMB.). Lengthy, covert negotiations between Novaritis and PMB led to the signing of a research agreement in 1998, with Novaritis promising $25million over five years. This agreement caused a great deal of controversy. Secrecy, delay in publication, implications for graduate students, the presence of Novartis scientists in the department, and more specifically Novartis’ influence over research agendas and intellectual property were deemed highly problematic by the portion of the Berkley community that had already had misgivings about working with industry. In time, these matters gave way to concerns about academic freedom, shared governance and integrity of research and teaching. 

In Chapter 4, Geiger and Sá have much to say about the different factors that frustrate university-industry relationship and, ultimately, hinder mind-to-market transfer. Their discussion on the potential for controversy regarding university patenting, licensing, and technology transfer offices (TTO) raises questions about how the university should use its intellectual property to leverage much-needed revenue while, at the same time, protecting the science of the commons and aiding economic growth. The authors home in on the function and efficacy of the TTO, describing it as “the sole portal through which university-generated knowledge is converted to intellectual property and a potential input to economic activity.”  The TTOs are deemed an important element in recruiting and retaining entrepreneurial faculty, encouraging spin-off companies and, perhaps most important, making the benefits of university discoveries available to the public. All of these activities contribute to local economic development and assist American universities in fulfilling their technology-transfer mission and demonstrating their economic relevance. However, TTOs face “the challenge of mediating between two organizational fields with antithetical cultures”: the world of the academic, which is based primarily on the advancement of knowledge, and the competitive conditions of commerce. By focusing on the TTOs and their function vis-a-vis the patenting and licensing of university research, Geiger and Sá guide their readers through the complex process of creating and developing intellectual property, the different patenting strategies a TTO may employ, the tensions that arise between TTO representatives, scientific academic researchers, and industry partners over patenting, and the major successes the TTO can achieve in generating revenue from selected inventions and managing the subsequent licenses.

Geiger and Sá discuss a particularly scathing criticism  directed  at  a handful of entrepreneurial universities and TTOs. These institutions, in their zeal to patent and reap revenues from cutting-edge university discoveries,  are increasingly “claiming ownership over fundamental scientific knowledge or research tools and engaging in extended campaigns to obtain multi-million dollar payoffs from often tenuous invention claims.”  The authors suggest that this hoarding of university-based science jeopardizes the public character of the scientific enterprise. As such, the authors are rightfully concerned with the increasing “erosion of the scientific commons,”   a trend that could severely restrict the dissemination of knowledge, threaten the learning process that the free flow of knowledge promotes, and hinder the future progress of science and technology.

In reflecting upon  Geiger and Sá’s discussion on the current excesses of the patent system, it may be useful to question to what extent  the imperatives of the market economy, matched with insufficient government funding for university research,  forcibly drive universities to increase their efforts to privatize knowledge. Furthermore, in an increasingly competitive neo-liberal economy, how accessible can we really expect knowledge to remain? While Geiger and Sá do not directly address these questions, they reference renowned economist Richard Nelson’s recommendations for reducing the excesses of the patent system. These recommendations include: restricting the patenting of natural phenomena, insisting on the usefulness (as opposed to scientific findings) in utility patents; and strengthening the public safeguards in the Bayh-Dole legislation.

Responsive, forward-looking S&T policies and practices are necessary to achieve sustainable growth and intensify economic development in any country. The importance of matching institutional policy (vis-a-vis entrepreneurial universities and corporate partners) with government policy cannot be emphasized enough, and Geiger and Sá highlight the important part national and state governments have in developing policies that strengthen the working relationship between industry and academia. Indeed, the authors’ review of state policies and programs that promote technology-based economic development (TBED) and engage universities is particularly informative.

Geiger and Sá point out that one of the most significant boosts in the wave of TBED policy in America came in 1998 when states negotiated the Master Tobacco Settlement Agreement with the principal cigarette manufacturers, creating a substantive judicially imposed tax on smokers. The settlement generated an estimated annual return of $6 billion. Many of the states elected to invest these funds in biomedical research, placing the U.S. head and shoulders above many other international competitors. Geiger and Sá report that to date, nearly half the states still allocate some tobacco funds to bioscience research.

In the interest of providing their readers with a focused view of the important role state governments have assumed in bridging the mind to market gap, Geiger and Sá home in on California, New York, Georgia, and Arizona . By focusing on these four case studies, the authors explain the different stateuniversity/private sector configurations that are possible, the dynamism involved in these relationships, as well as the inherent benefits, challenges, and limitations of these partnerships.

California, New York, Georgia, and Arizona governments have had remarkable success in establishing “upstream” policies that stimulate university research in economically relevant fields and create a niche for universities in TBED policy. In turn, many universities now have the opportunity to do things they would not have done on their own, such as collaborating with institutions that may have been perceived as out of reach, irrelevant and/or uninterested in their research strengths. However, Geiger and Sá demonstrate that each state’s level of competiveness and effectiveness differs according to its inherited capacity from historical investments in research institutions, the structure of the state economy, and the business strategies of the industrial sector. Furthermore,  each state’s policies reflected its distinctive political culture: citizen initiatives in California, extensive state intervention in New York, tacit understandings among sectors in Georgia, and planning in Arizona . Despite this spectrum of differences, there is one common element in all of the state policies analyzed: all these policies “are predicated on augmenting and harnessing the economic relevance of university research” and improving industry-university relations. 

While the authors discuss the evolution of TBED initiatives from an institutionalist standpoint at great length, they also pay attention to the role and strategic actions of key individuals that made TBED policies and programs possible. Geiger and Sá show that the agency of policy entrepreneurs is a vital element to consider if we are to better understand how multiple interests are negotiated between industry and university partners to achieve long-term economic development strategies. In the most complex and successful arrangements, these actors work together to develop a suite of policy instruments, which may include regulations, legislation, funding programs, strategic plans, evaluation reports, etc., that are designed to strengthen the working relationship between state governments, universities, and industry. For instance, Geiger and Sá discuss the accomplishments of University of California San Diego former chancellor and president, Richard C. Atkinson. This policy entrepreneur spearheaded the development of CONNECT, a “downstream” operation that significantly intensified UC research’s contribution to the California economy by “facilitating the commercialization of technology through firm formation, tapping capital, networking and providing essential services to fledgling firms.” During his presidency, Atkinson also created an initiative called Discovery Grants which matches industry support for peer-reviewed research projects in biotechnology, electronics and communications at any UC campus. Initially, the universities committed $3 million which was matched by $5 million from the state. To date, the university continues to contribute $3 million, while the state has increased its share of funding to more than $20 million. With industry’s added support, the Discovery Grants program is now valued at more than $50 million. Atkinson’s university policy has become a state policy, implemented through University of California Office of the President, and continuing to make major contributions to TBED.

Faculty members also play an important role in advancing the entrepreneurial spirit of their respective institutions. Rosenberg notes that “there has been a rise in the willingness (often eagerness) of university faculty to depart from their traditional teaching and research responsibilities and move into the commercial arena wearing the hat of the business decision maker.”  Geiger and Sá also suggest that many faculty members provide intellectual leadership in support of the universities’ efforts to strengthen university-industry partnerships and fulfill its mission of economic relevance.

Tapping the Riches of Sciences encourages readers to take seriously the scope and function of the research university of the 21st century. The authors have suggested that “the American university today harbours a latent antagonism between its intrinsic commitment to learning and its purported embrace of economic relevance, an ideological tension combined with practical coexistence.” Unequivocally, Geiger and Sá prove that the pressure to demonstrate economic relevance and competitiveness has driven American research universities to intensify efforts at generating cutting-edge research, increasing patenting and licensing activity, launching and cultivating spin-offs, and establishing stronger working relationships with industry. As such, Geiger and Sá effectively weave together a comprehensive review of the role of research universities as contributors to the innovation process, and demonstrate that “the riches of university science are joined with the promise of economic growth.” . However, they are also certain to point out that these institutions have not abandoned the “bedrock” norms to which all academic institutions and their faculty members implicitly subscribe: 

truth seeking and truth telling in research, scholarship, and teaching; fair
judging in the evaluation of the work of students, faculty, and other scholars;
and fair dealing in the treatment of students and other professionals.

Readers of Tapping the Riches of Sciences are left to mull over Geiger and Sá’s convincing characterization of the American entrepreneurial university and to think carefully about the suggestion that economic relevance should be viewed as a complementary mission to the research university’s learning component. 

Without a doubt, Geiger and Sá provide a refreshing voice to the ongoing debate on the appropriate role of the modern research university.

Nicola C. Hepburn is a doctoral candidate t in the political science department at the University of Toronto.