Holden Thorp and Buck Goldstein, authors of Engines of Innovation: The
Entrepreneurial University in the Twenty-First Century, discuss the pivotal role of
America's research universities
Q: What motivated you to collaborate on a book about the role of entrepreneurship in American universities?
Buck: The two of us have been working on various projects for the last six years. Early on, our focus was the classroom - thinking about how to teach entrepreneurship and then testing our ideas in the classroom. Over time, it became clear that what we were teaching had applicability throughout the university. When Holden became Dean, we met with the late Jeff Timmons, a pioneer in the teaching of entrepreneurship in higher education. He
felt strongly that UNC could become the leader in bringing entrepreneurial thinking to all
aspects of a research university. As we began to make Jeff's challenge a reality, it
occurred to us that we were learning a great deal and that led to the idea for the book.
Q: You mention in the introduction to the book that you started writing it before the economic crisis in the fall of 2008. How did that event shape the content of the book as you moved forward?
Holden: As we outline in the introduction, it became clear that innovation was critical to working our way through the immediate economic problems the country is facing. Innovation is also critical to our long-term future. When all is said and done, the U.S. is still viewed by most of the world as the leader in developing new approaches to big problems and our research universities remain the envy of the rest of the world. But to whom much is given, much is expected, and if we must innovate our way out of the current predicament we find ourselves in, research universities must play a leadership role. How that might be done is a large part of what we write about. After we started working on this, the Secretary of Commerce formed the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which I'm honored to be on along with three other research university leaders. So, this is becoming a national discussion, and we're glad we pressed on.
Q: Why are universities uniquely positioned to take on the big problems that we face, like climate change and global poverty?
Buck: There is no comparable institution in our society to a research university. Collectively, they have over 250 billion dollars in endowment and the human capital inside their walls and nearby surpasses the value of their financial resources. Culturally, these institutions seek to improve the world. This impulse is what attracts many of the world's brightest lights to the life of an academic. When this vast reservoir of financial capital and human capital are placed within a culture that relishes an opportunity to attack the world's biggest problems, a huge opportunity exists. We believe that entrepreneurial thinking is, in many cases, the missing ingredient which when added to what already exists can lead to research universities becoming true engines of innovation.
Q: Is entrepreneurship a relatively new concept in American higher education, or is there a hidden history of entrepreneurship in American universities?
Holden: We learned a great deal about this question in the process of writing the book. In fact we proposed to write an entire chapter on the historic role of entrepreneurs in the creation of the modern university both in Europe and here in the United States. Thanks to our editor, that chapter is on the cutting room floor. However, the basic story repeats itself over and over. A successful entrepreneur teams up with an imaginative academic and a
great university is created. This was the case at Cornell, Johns Hopkins, Stanford and our own institution UNC just to name a few. Moreover, many successful academics employ entrepreneurial thinking to build their careers and get things done within the university. These academics may not think of themselves as entrepreneurs because they associate the word with business, but once exposed to the concept, it resonates with many of them.
Q: How does entrepreneurship relate to the traditional mission of universities as centers of higher education?
Buck: Nothing can prepare a truly innovative entrepreneur better than a liberal arts education. Entrepreneurs are drawn to rapidly changing environments where decisions must be made with imperfect information. They are required to understand complex
environments that only reveal themselves after thoughtful questioning and careful analysis. For entrepreneurs, the manual has not been written and therefore they must be lifelong learners as they seek to create new solutions to important problems. Similarly, entrepreneurial thinking can dramatically increase the impact of the research and other activities that go on inside the university.
Q: What are some of the key similarities between entrepreneurial innovation and the types of research typically undertaken by university departments? What are some differences?
Holden: The main difference is how research problems are identified. In the hypothesis-driven model often used in the academy, one's colleagues typically evaluate whether research is worth pursuing and, once complete, determine if it should be published in a respected journal. This is a great model that is responsible for many of the best innovations of the world, because someone recognized the opportunity created by the new knowledge. In contrast, entrepreneurial thinking begins with a problem - often seen as an opportunity at the outset - and the research itself is driven by the need to describe, address, and sometimes even solve the problem. Adding this ingredient to the curiosity-driven environment of a research university often reveals new questions as well as possible answers. This creates new opportunities for researchers and sets up a virtuous cycle.
Q: Is entrepreneurial innovation something that can be taught at the undergraduate level?
Buck: Absolutely. We have been teaching 100 undergraduates a year for the last six years as part of UNC's minor in entrepreneurship and this year we had over 200 applications for the 100 spots. For some students, learning to be an entrepreneur is a dream come true because, for one reason or another, they always had an innovative frame of mind. For other students it is a nightmare. When they are told that in entrepreneurship there are no "right answers" they quickly determine it's not for them because they have been getting the right answer their whole life and have no intention of giving up on the security and certainty of being the smartest kid in the class. We have also had success describing entrepreneurial thinking to faculty members using many of the same techniques we pioneered with undergraduates. A lot of academics are very focused on ambiguity and difficult problems that don't have a tidy solution, so that part of entrepreneurial thinking is very comfortable to them.
Q: The financial crisis took a heavy toll on university budgets, and many universities have been forced to cut back. Why is this the right time to introduce the new
approaches towards research and innovation that you outline in your book?
Holden: There is probably never a "right" time but actually we have very little choice. For institutions such as ours, to whom so much has been given, we must not shirk our responsibilities to all of those who have supported us and believed in us over the years. The research university model, particularly the public research university model, is under great strain due to the problems with state budgets. Now is the time to talk about why integrating learning and research is the best way to produce the ideas and people needed to move society forward. In addition to the financial crisis, the rise of for-profit higher education and the efforts of international universities to adopt more of the U.S. liberal arts model, create an opportune time for this discussion.
Q: How do universities benefit from embracing the entrepreneurial spirit and pushing for innovations?
Buck: First, entrepreneurial thinking will, we believe, help research universities achieve their fundamental missions. Each of these missions is somewhat different but impacting and describing the world's biggest problems is something substantially all of them want to do. Second, innovation and entrepreneurship can be a galvanizing influence on the
entire community, creating a mission that can pull students and academics out of their silos in pursuit of solutions to our most vexing problems. Lastly, donors can relate to an innovative, problem-solving environment that increases the likelihood their largesse will make a true difference in the world.
Q: How do businesses and entrepreneurs benefit from working with universities?
Holden: It depends. In the area we call scientific entrepreneurship in the book, many universities make collaboration difficult because they do not provide standardized and streamlined mechanisms for protecting intellectual property and commercializing opportunities that arise. Actually, doing this well is quite difficult and we devote an entire chapter of the book to models that seem to work - specifically the Langer Lab at MIT and the DeSimone lab at UNC. If effective processes for cooperation can be developed, businesses, NGOs, and other enterprises can gain access to the fruits of important research that they can use to further their own missions. Most important, they become part of important conversations that breed new ideas and even new ways of thinking. This expanded conversation benefits both academics and those outside academia.
Q: In your opinion, what kind of relationship should exist between the university groups that produce innovations and the businesses that bring those innovations into the marketplace?
Buck: They both play an important role. The key is for each to appreciate the other. Businesses will never duplicate the wide open environment of the university that is willing to pursue ideas and theories that are simply too futuristic to support on a commercial basis in the immediate term but often prove very important over the long term. The dialogue such a culture fosters is important and exciting but unsupportable in a for-profit situation. On the other hand, bringing innovation to market is not something universities are engineered to accomplish - it is not part of their core mission. Successful businesses are good at that. Figuring out mechanisms and processes that preserve the core competencies of the academy and the commercial sectors but allow them to cooperate meaningfully is a big part of what we discuss in the book. The big thing is to get the discussion started and keep it going: if the academy and business are not talking to each other, then opportunities are being missed. That's why we talk a lot about pairings between academics and entrepreneurs.
Q: In the book you discuss the importance of metrics that track the progress and success of entrepreneurial ventures. Are you planning to track the progress of entrepreneurial innovation at the University of North Carolina and the other universities you studied to see the long-term results of these ideas?
Holden: Here at Carolina we are launching a major initiative, Innovation@Carolina, and developing new, key metrics is an important part of the initiative. The metrics that we discuss in the book are already tracked carefully on our own campus and elsewhere. One of the things we try to do in the book is to help folks understand the benefits and limitations of these kinds of metrics. The question "How are we doing?" has important
qualitative answers, of course, but quantitative answers often resonate more with problem-oriented observers both inside and outside the university. At times like these, universities
need to be equipped with numerous tools to show the importance of what we do.
Q: What is the most important idea that you want readers to take away from this book?
Buck: With over $250 billion in endowment and a collection of the greatest minds in the world, research universities are the crown jewels of our society. But given the enormous challenges we face, how can these great institutions have a greater impact on the world's biggest problems? The answer, we believe, is two-fold: world class innovation resulting from an environment of boundless curiosity, and relentless execution resulting from a commitment to improve the world. Entrepreneurial thinking brings these two imperatives together and paves the way for the creation of a true engine of innovation.