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C-Level View | Viewpoint

Taking Back Innovation

Universities must foster both discovery and commercialization.

As VP for IT and CIO at Purdue University (IN), Gerry McCartney has shown strong support for innovation on campus by helping researchers commercialize and market their work. In a brief Q&A, McCartney discussed his strategy with CT.

CAMPUS TECHNOLOGY: Why should universities commercialize as well as develop innovative research?

GERRY McCARTNEY: There was a time when all of the top technologies came out of universities. E-mail, the internet, and web browsers all came out of the academy. Universities were the innovators. We need to reclaim that, and a holistic approach that helps bring innovative ideas through development and all the way to the marketplace is going to sustain us as centers of innovation.

Bringing products to market has not been a core competency of the academy. Could it become so? I guess it could. More important, we must become a lot more active in preparing our innovations and knowledge advances for the market, so that inventors can see their creations enter the market more easily.

CT: How should universities approach this?

GM: First, universities should examine their strategic goals and, if they're land grant institutions like Purdue, also consider their relevance to the local, state, and national economies. They should then focus their innovations on achieving those goals. By becoming truly innovative institutions, they will not only help themselves achieve their goals, but are also likely to develop solutions that have commercialization possibilities.

CT: What are the implications for researchers? Would IP or patent issues change?

GM: I think we'll see some experimentation in this area, so how we reward or provide incentives for researchers might well change. I know this is something at Purdue that we're taking a hard look at. And it's not just for researchers--staff have come up with many innovations, and some of the most energizing discussions I've had recently have been with entrepreneurial undergraduate students.

But sadly, at this time, the last place many students would consider taking an idea is to the university. They are concerned that the university will claim the idea as its own, that it will take years to develop the idea, or that the school doesn't know anything about bringing products to market or creating businesses. I want to stand that notion on its head, and create an environment at Purdue that students seek out because they've heard of the assistance others have received. That's when we'll know we've created a true environment of innovation.

CT: Could partnerships with industry leaders help in all of this?

GM: The more we can get industry leaders--whether we are talking about corporations or individuals--concerned about higher education and involved in our efforts to improve, the stronger our universities will become. The academy thinks of the world quite differently than most industry leaders, but that tension is good and creative. These differences need a chance to interact, and that's what I'm trying to encourage.

CT: Can you tie all this in with the teaching and learning mission of the institution?

GM: The best innovations are those that help universities foster inquiry and discovery, and make successful students. These innovations benefit us directly and almost immediately, compared with the longer process of product development and commercialization. But the two goals sync well, and, as far as opportunity, there is a nearly wide-open field in front of us.

About the Author

Mary Grush is Editor and Conference Program Director, Campus Technology.

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