Tech Transfer eNews Blog

Does your university need an innovation czar?

By Jesse Schwartz
Published: November 6th, 2019

Universities have been focusing on innovation and entrepreneurship for many years, forming complex research partnerships with major corporations, building incubators and accelerators, hosting an array of competitions, launching and funding start-ups, and encouraging researchers to focus on the commercial potential of their work. On top of all this, some schools — such as Princeton University and the University of California, Berkeley — are trying to unify these efforts and reach an even higher level by creating new academic leadership positions.

Princeton recently appointed Rodney Priestley, professor of chemical and biological engineering, as the university’s first-ever vice dean for innovation, effective February 3, 2020. Meanwhile Berkeley has appointed Richard Lyons, professor of economics and finance and former dean of the Haas School of Business, as its first-ever chief innovation and entrepreneurship officer (CIEO), effective January 1, 2020.

Priestley notes that the philosophy behind his position correlates with the informal motto of the university: “In the nation’s service and the service of humanity.” As vice dean for innovation, Priestley’s focus, he says, will be enhancing innovation and entrepreneurship so the university can share its innovations for the benefit of society.

“There are many things that are moving in a positive direction, so we thought the time was right to provide academic leadership for innovation and entrepreneurship,” says Pablo Debenedetti, Princeton’s dean for research.

Priestley notes that his position will build on what is already an exciting time for innovators at Princeton, where faculty and student start-ups are on the rise. “We recognized the need to create this position to continue to provide for that growth,” he comments. “Also, to steer it in the right direction so it continues to grow.”

It’s a similar view that led to Lyons’ position at Berkeley, where “the ecosystem for entrepreneurship and innovation has evolved tremendously,” Lyons says. He calls the research-driven entrepreneurship there “a wonderful institutional asset that goes up in engineering or business or law, and we connect them a little bit here and there in an ad hoc way. We have technology licensing, and it’s getting stronger and better. But people wanted to know, where is the remaining headroom? What kind of things can we do to pull [everything] together in fresh ways?”

His new position, he explains, “was set up on an abstract notion that we’re a lot better than we used to be, but we feel like there’s still maybe some boundaries that need to be spanned, and also, some new terrain that we might want to go after.”

The positions at both Princeton and Berkeley are intended to enhance academic leadership in the context of innovation and entrepreneurship. “Princeton is an institution that has very strong faculty governance and initiatives [that] come from the faculty,” Debenedetti states. “[We want to] enhance and build the momentum. For example, we have a very good corporate engagement [group]. We have a very good office of technology transfer, and a lot of the good work that they do is reflected in the statistics on industry funding for research. But providing an academic face and academic leadership makes a big difference on this campus, and that’s what we didn’t have. And so, it will give an entirely new visibility to the activities that are going on and the ones we want to establish.”

Priestley notes his desire to promote greater participation in innovation and entrepreneurship by faculty and students. “One of the things we’d like to do out of this office is more motivation, more encouragement, more recognition that would create, in addition to the activities that are undertaken, somewhat of a cultural change with respect to how we view ourselves in the framework of innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Lyons explains that at Berkeley, faculty think of themselves primarily as research scholars. Those who think of themselves as inventors or start-up entrepreneurs remain on the periphery. For many researchers, he notes, commercialization activity “is outside the bounds.” But, Lyons also quickly clarifies, “that’s not true of every faculty member at all. There are a lot of terrific scholars who are terrific entrepreneurs, and their identity bounces back between one and the other…. But there’s still a little bit of, ‘we’re scholars first.’”

Lyons’ goal, he says, is to make it “cooler” to be an inventor at Berkeley, and that task is made easier when it’s driven by an academic, rather than from a TTO or other non-academic unit.

A detailed article on the new innovation leadership positions at Princeton and Berkeley appears in the October issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. For subscription information, CLICK HERE.

Posted under: Tech Transfer e-News

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