Wednesday, April 20, 2011

I Think I Can! The Student Engine

By Keith McDowell

Jocks versus nerds! How quaint and twentieth century. Tiger versus the “whatever” wired zombie! Or is that characterization already passé? Society loves to pigeon hole the young with stereotypical imagery. It’s a sport and a game – a generational contest. We could blame it on Viagra, but it’s always been there – perhaps now enhanced and accelerated. Should we simply enjoy and be amused by the contest as a spectator or is there a deeper meaning? Should we, or can we, manipulate the rules to achieve a more positive benefit to society? How did we become so accepting of the status quo?

Children truly believe in the little engine that could. The simple incantation of “I think I can” is sufficient for them to power their imagination into creative storytelling and visioning that far surpasses their later incarnation as stereotypes. Why does the magic die? How does it die? Is there no way for society as parents and educators to recapture and re-fire that imagination? Are we satisfied that college students graduate without the full complement of skills needed for success in the era of global competition, lacking in creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship? I think not. And the answer for me is experiential learning through practice in the real-world. I call it the Practicum Model.

Experiential learning is not new and has been with us since the dawning of the Academy. In the beginning, there were disciples and apprentices. Today, we have graduate students as cheap labor, internships, living-learning residence halls, travel and study abroad, capstone engineering courses designed to solve industrial problems, Dean-for-a-Day, Moot Corp, Alabama Launchpad, and an endless list activities outside the traditional classroom. But do they work? Do they satisfy the twin goals of firing up the young and achieving a positive societal benefit?

The accountability culture almost certainly has an answer. And they have the metrics to prove it! Their chart labeled “Gotcha” clearly shows an improvement in student retention rates for those in living-learning residence halls as opposed to those who reside in dormitories. Dormitories are so twentieth century! How can we doubt the obvious? Of course, we shouldn’t. Metrics, accountability, transparency, and all the other modern sociopolitical concepts are important as measures of how we are doing, but they are not enough. We must inform our activities with strategic principles.

Consider one of the latest educational fads: gaming. No one doubts its efficacy to students for absorbing a large quantity of data, developing critical thinking skills through problem solving, or enhancing teaming – although in an electronic social networked version. Gaming belies the notion that too many are slow learners. Properly used, it is a vehicle to overcome intellectual apathy. Tactically, it is a great instrument as are all the other modern forms of experiential learning. What’s missing is the strategic concept. While learning for the sake of learning is a worthy end unto itself handed down to us through the centuries and while it constitutes an essential strategy that encompasses experiential learning, is that enough for freshly minted students to be competitive in the global workforce? Again, I think not!

The classic definition of a student is one who attends school, one who makes a study of something, or one who observes. It’s the passive notion of students as receptacles of knowledge – the notion that dominated twentieth century thinking even as experiential learning began to emerge. A key factor in the slow breakdown of such thinking came in the latter part of the century as the “research experience” for students grew in importance along with Federal funding of basic research at universities. But why stop there? Why have a piecemeal approach to experiential learning? It’s time to change from a core definition of students that is passive – students as receptacles – to one that is active. I propose that we think of students as “engines” and replace “student receptacle” with “student engine.”

Believe it or not, we’ve already made an equivalent change in describing universities. In modern parlance, universities are “engines of innovation” or “engines of economic development.” Lest some purists be upset that these changes will destroy the “ivory tower,” I don’t see it that way. For me the ivory tower never existed anyway and is a figment of historical mythology, as is the purist notion of students as receptacles. But nonetheless, the essence of unfettered, independent scholarly activity and learning should be continued and is not threatened by our transformation of the student from receptacle to engine.

But let’s be specific. How do we execute such a change? I call it the Practicum Model. The dictionary defines “practicum” as “supervised practical application of a previously studied theory.” In other words, it’s experiential learning. We know how to conduct a practicum, although universities are a bit rusty in that regard. We know how to measure performance against standards. It’s not new. So, what is new? What’s new is that universities over the past decade have been rapidly expanding their service role into one of engagement. They are becoming “engines of innovation” in regional communities of innovation or innovation ecosystems. The infrastructure is falling into place. It’s now time to engage the students!

I have a number of suggestions for elements of a useful practicum model centered specifically on the commercialization of university research and the preparation of students to be competitive in the global workforce, not by treating them as receptacles, but as active partners.

Entrepreneurial programs for students. We have a large number of such programs and graduates, but where are these graduates? They seem to be missing in action. According to Angus Loten, there is “still no standard curriculum among top business schools for entrepreneurial studies.” Furthermore, “programs have a strong academic focus, rather than a how-to approach geared towards existing business owners.”  The practicum model would solve that problem.

Entrepreneurial programs for faculty. Faculty members typically have not had training in any aspect of a commercialization system. Universities need to remedy this situation. We need faculty involvement as well as student involvement.

Commercialization degree programs. Commercialization as an activity is a growing profession and should be so recognized – including the formation of degree programs. Such programs will positively impact the long-term operation of Offices of Technology Commercialization by providing certified professionals.

Workforce and STEM issues. What company would not want to hire students who have participated in the practicum model? What student would not want to enter a STEM career where practical training occurs early in the educational process? What student would not want exposure to the possibilities of using a STEM career to build an independent existence through a startup company? I believe the practicum model has potential to address the issue of the flight from STEM careers by American children.

Trans-disciplinary communication and teaming. The practicum model for commercialization requires cooperation and communication among teams of students and faculty from all disciplines of the university. It’s the ultimate driving force to achieve convergence of disciplines at the campus level to spur innovation and promote global competitiveness.

Alumnae as partners. There are many ways that alumnae can and should participate in the practicum model – their real-world experience being the least common denominator. Absent direct financial support, what better way for alumnae to support their alma mater than to serve as mentors, thought leaders, brain trusts, or advisory board members.

Industry investment. The innovation enterprise requires increased industry investment in bridging the gap between university and industry cultures, but universities must provide a mechanism and reason for them to do so. The practicum model provides that positive mechanism.

The era of the student as an engine is upon us. Let’s embrace that holistic concept and further enhance the power of America to be the world leader in innovation.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Batteries Not Included!

By Keith McDowell

You open your birthday gift and find … yes! … the latest gadget to satisfy your need for a technological fix. But wait! Attached is that little sticker that says, “Batteries not included.” Darn. It’s the one battery size that you don’t have and a battery did not come with the gift. How annoying! Now you’ll have to make a trip to the store to achieve full gratification.

Technology commercialization is like that. Initially, you have the idea which results in a discovery and possibly an invention. But that’s only the gadget. It doesn’t work without the “batteries,” otherwise known as proof of concept, reduction to practice, technology development, or innovations that make the gadget a commercial product. Or maybe your gadget needs more gadgets to be developed or a supporting infrastructure such as a faster Internet or advanced wireless connectivity. Where do you buy those batteries? Who will help you produce the batteries needed for your gadget?

Surprisingly, the answer is not a satisfying one for America. Bridging the gap, or what is sometimes called the technological “valley of death” as opposed to the venture capital “valley of death,” is difficult. It’s not just an issue of funding, although that is often a problem at such an early stage of development. Furthermore, Mother Nature sometimes just doesn’t play along with our technological desires and the invention is stillborn as a commercial product. But the real problem is neither of these. It’s the lack of early-state innovation centers! Gadgets without batteries have almost no place to turn to other than industrial R&D laboratories. And how many of those do we have left in America with anything other than a short-term profit driven motive?

The good news is that there is a movement afoot to rectify this problem, but it is at an early stage of implementation and is still experimental. It’s a movement to create innovation centers attached to research universities. So what is an innovation center? A simple version is the “proof of concept” center (POCC) as epitomized by the Deshpande Center at the MIT School of Engineering and the von Liebig Center at the University of California San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering. Such centers do not have a permanent research staff and are more tightly focused on proof of concept as opposed to also carrying out R&D to produce innovations related to a given technology. An analysis of these centers and this concept is provided by Christine A. Gulbranson and David B. Audretsch in the article Proof of Concept Centers:  Accelerating the Commercialization of University Innovation.

I personally don’t advocate for use of the POCC phrase since it is not a term of art in the world of technology commercialization, although it appears in several reports and is used by some. It is ill-defined and specifies a very narrow part of the spectrum for moving discoveries along the path to commercialization. Although no phrase has clearly emerged to describe the important concept of providing the “batteries,” I prefer the phrase “innovation center.” Do models exist for  innovation centers as opposed to POCCs? Two come to mind: the Alabama Innovation, Mentoring and Entrepreneurial (AIME) center and the Biodesign Institute.

The AIME center at The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, was one of the first innovation centers formed and incorporates many of the functions required. The AIME process is as follows: university invention disclosures – or sometimes external invention disclosures – are triaged by a team including students from various disciplines.  Those disclosures with commercial potential, but with a need for market analysis or additional R&D, are submitted to AIME as projects.  The permanent R&D staff at AIME work with faculty and student teams to pursue development of the invention, often by introducing new innovations.  Industry sponsored development also occurs as appropriate.  If needed, the Bama Technology Incubator provides a home for companies spun out from AIME R&D. The ultimate goal is to provide a managed environment to bridge the technological gap from invention to commercially viable intellectual property.

The Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University and its related Impact Accelerator couple with SkySong to form a new community of innovation in Tempe, Arizona. The function of Biodesign is similar in many ways to AIME and is an example of an innovation center.  Quoting from one of their pamphlets, “Biodesign’s leadership team encompasses skills in science, medicine, engineering, computing, strategy, communication, and business to ensure that its research yields a clear societal benefit as rapidly as possible.”  The pamphlet further states that “It has infused its programs with a focus on interdisciplinary teams and accountability to deliver practical solutions.”  The Biodesign Institute is an example of use-driven research in Pasteur’s quadrant.  As opposed to the macro-challenge approach of a DOE innovation hub or lablet, Biodesign represents smaller-scale challenges, but with a thematic research focus, collected together into a single entity having an overarching approach to commercialization of university research.  The concept and approach is worthy of consideration and replication.

But let’s be very specific and provide two examples of “batteries not included” discoveries and how an innovation center should function. During my time as vice president for research at The University of Alabama, I ran into a prime example of a terrific and valuable enabling technology developed by Dr. Robin Rogers. Dr. Rogers is a world leader in the creation of new and targeted ionic liquids. Ionic liquids are like common table salt when heated to a high temperature and melted. The melt is a fluid composed of sodium and chloride ions. But ionic liquids also exist at room temperature and their ions are typically complex organic structures. Their properties vary with the identity of the ions. Choice of ions is part of the game. Ionic liquids are wonderful solvents with a very low vapor pressure and have the potential to replace volatile organic solvents such as benzene, leading to green chemistry. For example, several ionic liquids dissolve wood pulp or cellulose and have potential in the paper industry or for the production of cellulosic plastics or biofuels. Clearly, ionic liquids are an enabling technology. But to have a market for ionic liquids, R&D needed to be pursued to realize these specific applications, products, and materials. We turned to the AIME center using funds from licensing revenue and from industrial sponsored research agreements. Many successes followed and the lead research scientist was hired within a year by a major corporate sponsor.

My second example uses what I describe as the 10% wackiness rule. Hey, I’m a mountaineer who thinks that walking along a ridgeline in hurricane force winds is fun. And I’ve got the film to prove it! So, what is the 10% rule? Basically, it says that 10% of the time, you should take the riskier road. Do weird. Pick the non-conventional choice. Invest in the unproven. Does it work for me? About six years ago, my assistant in Alabama, Beverly Baker, informed me that a dentist from Rome, GA, Dr. Michael Blackmon, wanted to meet with me to discuss an invention. Wow, I thought. A doctor wants an appointment with me. Hmm, I need to make sure my magazines are dated and he has to wait a bit in the outer office. Oh, the joy of getting even. But then I thought, maybe this is another one of those nuts with the latest mousetrap. We scheduled the meeting.

Dr. Blackmon proved to be a very sincere person with a great idea. Mike had heard about a child burning to death in a car that caught fire in a traffic accident and the inability of a rescuer to get the child out of the safety seat. Mike took action and designed a quick release mechanism complete with engineering drawings. Mike wanted to assign his invention to the university, but with the understanding that The University of Alabama (UA) would pursue his invention. Apparently, other universities had turned him down. I said, “why not!”  The project was given to Alabama’s AIME program. In a May 2009 press release, AIME notes that two chair designs have been prototyped and tested with release times of under two seconds. There is a very strong possibility that Dr. Blackmon’s crusade will lead to his designs becoming the industry standard. I hope so, but what a great story. It shows how the 10% wacky rule works in the real world with both Mike and UA taking the plunge. It also shows how an innovation center can be made to work with external inventors.

So, we come to the bottom line. Should universities open up innovation R&D centers to pursue research designed to open up and enhance market potential? How will they be funded, especially given the low rate of revenue return from intellectual property? Federal and State governments show no signs of any significant funding for such R&D innovation centers. Industry shows promise but is not likely to be anywhere near enough.

Then we have the plethora of university concerns. Should faculty and students be involved in R&D that potentially has proprietary dimensions? How do we manage conflict of interest and conflict of commitment given that R&D in innovation centers will be strongly coupled to startup companies in university incubators? These are just a few of the concerns campus administrators will have to face. But we must rise above such bureaucratic impediments and reach for the higher goal. Innovation centers are essential components of a twenty-first century innovation ecosystem. Our challenge is to find a way to make them happen.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Do You Believe in Magic? The Texas Ignition Fund

By Keith McDowell

Two million dollars invested; twenty-three startup companies formed! So much from so little. But how can that be? Is it magic? Or is it more like the 1965 tune by John Sebastian and The Lovin’ Spoonful where “you’ll see how the magic’s in the music and the music’s in me?” Have we truly found a silver bullet to accelerate the commercialization of university research? First, a history lesson on the Texas Ignition Fund and what it is about.

In 2006 the Office of Research and Technology Transfer at The University of Texas System administration formed a small working group to search for mechanisms to enhance the formation of startup companies based on discoveries from the research laboratories of its fifteen member institutions. Arjuna Sanga, Associate Vice Chancellor, Matt Blanton, founder CEO and managing partner of STARTech Early Ventures, and Madison Pedigo, manager of the Texas Instruments Venture Capital Program, comprised the group. After a year of study, the group proposed a model similar to the Deshpande model used at MIT – the core being a “proof of concept” or POC fund. The Board of Regents agreed to the plan in December of 2007 and invested two million dollars in a POC grant program called the Texas Ignition Fund, or TIF.

TIF provided grants of up to $50,000 to support the development and maturation of research discoveries into marketable intellectual property through a competitive process. Under the outstanding leadership of Cathy Swain, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Commercialization, TIF hosted six rounds of proposal applications. The proposals were vetted by external volunteers including venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, Texas Emerging Technology Fund staff and advisors, and technology transfer legal experts. From a total of 123 proposals, 45 were funded by March of 2010, totally depleting TIF. The grants spanned a range of industry clusters with 31 in biotechnology and life sciences, 10 in micro-electrical and mechanical systems (MEMS), 7 in energy, 4 in advanced technologies and manufacturing, and 4 in nanotechnology with the remainder in five other clusters.

From the first distribution of grant funds in the fall of 2008 until the summer of 2010 – about 18 months, the outcomes from TIF included 23 startup companies, 9 licenses and options executed, 12 patents issued, 59 patent applications and $7.7 million in external funding. By any measure one chooses, these statistics clearly demonstrate the acceleration of university research discoveries into the marketplace. Two companies in particular standout as exemplars: Lone Star Advanced Technology, LLC, and FibeRio Technology Corporation.

Lone Start Advanced Technology, LLC, is in the energy sector and based on an alternative fuel conversion process that transforms lignite coal into heavy crude using an efficient and cost-effective micro-refinery concept. Developed by Drs. Richard Billo, Brian Dennis, and John Priest at UT Arlington, the technology has received over $2.4 million in external funding from the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, and others as well as more than 50 inquiries from potential licensees and investors. Materials and processing costs are estimated at only $25 per barrel, suggesting that a profitable refining operation can be supported. Texas in particular has abundant lignite coal that can potentially be converted to heavy crude, and American oil refineries are fully capable of upgrading it into low-cost pitches, cokes, gasoline and diesel fuels. TIF funds were essential for helping to develop objective data on cost, quality and feasibility of this breakthrough process.

FibeRio Technology Corporation is a nanotechnology company based on a revolutionary “Forcespinning TechnologyTM” that produces nano-fibers with high yields, low costs, and increased safety. Developed by Dr. Karen Lozano’s team at UT Pan American, this new patented technology offers a broad range of applications and it was named one of the top innovations of 2010 by the American Society of Manufacturing Engineers. TIF funds helped test the prototype’s reliability, develop a business plan and marketing strategy, and form the new startup company. FibeRio received the Silver award from the World’s Best Technology Showcase in March, 2010.

Is the amazing success story of TIF magic? No. But just as the trumpets of Joshua and the Israelite army brought down the walls of Jericho, it does point to a major new tool in America’s battle to bridge the gap between research discoveries and their downstream commercialization. The trumpets are blaring at us. The evidence is clear for all to see from TIF and other new POC programs. If you want to accelerate commercialization, invest in POC funds. Otherwise, enjoy an incremental, languorous pace listening to The Lovin’ Spoonful as the world races past.

So who will pay for POC programs? The money has to come from someplace! Universities don’t have any money as state support is crumbling before our eyes and retrenchment is the order of the day. Donations to university development and advancement offices could be tapped, but that avenue isn’t appealing to development officers. Venture capital could provide the funds, but POC programs are much too early stage and far too risky. Furthermore, it’s not clear that venture capitalists have the requisite expertise to review and assess the commercial potential at such an early stage, although the TIF experience with external reviewers was very positive. State funding is out in the present economic climate, even though it would be in their best interest for the long term to fund the development of regional innovation ecosystems. Industrial funding is a real possibility, but will require significant efforts from both universities and industry to bridge the culture gap. That’s not likely to happen quickly. So we are left with federal funding.

Excluding the SBIR and STTR programs, which are manifestly not POC programs, the federal government has no concerted program for POC funding. I challenge the Department of Commerce and the Office of Science and Technology Policy to come up with new innovation and commercialization policies that include POC funding. I challenge the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and all the other myriad federal agencies that fund basic and applied research to immediately create supplemental POC funding programs as part of the apparatus of federal research grants. There is no good reason or excuse why a researcher should not be able to apply for an additional $50,000 supplement to an existing research grant when discoveries are made that have commercial potential. America can no longer ignore our failure to fund “proof of concept” and bridge the gap from research to commercialization.

It’s not magic! It works! Let’s get it done!