Partnerships and building bridges were themes that came up repeatedly during the academia roundtable discussion at the Manufacturing for the Grand Challenges summit. Inventors and innovators associated with universities shared their ideas for encouraging innovation and shepherding ideas along the path from a university to a company.
Before the roundtable began, William R. (Randy) Woodson, chancellor of North Carolina State University, offered a metaphor inspired by the imagery of DNA’s double helix, saying, “Partnerships are critical to move manufacturing forward—the triple helix of government, industry and university partnerships.” He cited the founding of the Research Triangle Park as a perfect example.
Woodson’s comments and the roundtable took place at a conference where representatives from industry, academia, and government gathered to discuss advanced manufacturing, in particular manufacturing that will be necessary to meet the Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st Century. This is a list of 14 challenges, such as engineering better medicines and reverse engineering the brain, compiled in 2008 by a committee organized by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE).
The academia roundtable was moderated by Tom Katsouleas, dean of Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering. He opened the discussion with another metaphor for partnerships: “The best research universities will be the innovation engines of the 21st century, but the drive train and transmission that connect that engine to wheels on the ground that will lead to societal solutions and solve the Grand Challenges comes from partnerships with industry.”
Adding to the transportation metaphor, panelist Joseph DeSimone said, “Federal funding for research is the fuel for this economy. Federal government supports disruptive innovation. That’s where jobs come from.” DeSimone is a chemical engineering professor at NCSU, and a chemistry professor and director of the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at UNC.
Miles Palmer agreed, saying, “The more fundamental the research, the more likely it is to lead to disruptive innovation.” Palmer is cofounder of Palmer Labs and 8 Rivers Capital.
Panelist Jagannathan Sankar described an example of a successful partnership at North Carolina A&T State University, where he and his colleagues are working to develop magnesium alloys that could be used to make biomedical implants—such as staples or pins—that would be resorbed by the body during healing. Sankar’s lab is an Engineering Research Center supported by a NSF grant, and also has a partnership with InCube Labs, a company in California. “Public-private partnership is key,” Sankar said. “The universities will have a fair share. The professors will have a fair share.”
Palmer emphasized the importance of universities and industry partnering to improve engineering education by creating more internships. “Internships are one of the most powerful ways of motivating students and teaching them. I’d like to challenge universities to step up internships,” he said, adding, “It takes two to tango: Industry has to be more proactive about soliciting interns and co-op students.”
DeSimone brought up partnerships between universities. “One of the richest veins of opportunity for innovation has been the bridge between engineering and life sciences. We’ve got to build these bridges to make a difference.” He pointed out that UNC-Chapel Hill no longer has an engineering school (it was shut down during the Depression), making partnerships with engineering schools crucial.
Conflict of interest, patent law, intellectual property, and licensing were hot topics of conversation during the roundtable.
Some participants suggested that universities would come out ahead if they “let go of the purse strings” of intellectual property. Panelists and participants shared several models of licensing used by different universities—for example, UNC frequently uses an express license, where the university takes a modest royalty and no equity.
Katsouleas summed up the conversation about this rapidly evolving arena with, “Philanthropy and relationships can be worth a lot more than the license.” At any rate, he concluded, “There will be changes.”
In response to a question from a conference participant about conflict of interest, Sankar said, “How will universities of the new millennium change to add value? The best way is to work hand-in-glove with industry. I can concentrate on the science side and the innovation side. As soon as you start a company, the conflict of interest starts.”
DeSimone, who has plenty of experience starting companies, responded, “You can do both; it’s important to do both. The conflict of interest is a problem if you don’t know which hat you are wearing.”
At the end of the discussion, Sankar said he felt motivated to build on the conversations begun at the conference and said, “We are here together to change the country, and it’s a team effort.”
Palmer concluded by endorsing the Research Convergence Accelerator, a consortium of five area universities and RTI International, as a way of building productive partnerships.