To Spur Innovation, Tech Ecosystems Can’t Afford to Overlook Academia
August 11, 2021
Originally appeared in CTech by Anna Pellivert
Curiosity Driven Research born from academia is vital in order to keep the best minds tackling the biggest questions in science.
“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” Almost all of us have heard those words before, and if not, we’ve heard disparaging comments about those in academia who remain in their “ivory towers” walled off from reality. On the flipside, VCs, accelerators, and many private incubators of innovation win both praise and headlines. While praise for the latter is warranted, disparagement for the former – academia – is holding many tech ecosystems back. Academia paired with technology transfers are an infinite source for ambitious innovation, curiosity-driven research which has produced monumental breakthroughs and if harnessed correctly, can produce many more.
Academia and the private sector take similar paths to foster innovation
Academia driving innovation isn’t just some theory on paper. Before I began work at a technology transfer, I was on the other side of the ecosystem in innovation consulting for startups, and while academics and startups may seem like they are on opposing sides of the tech food chain, in my experience, they are far more similar than people expect. Both are agile groups of smart people working very hard to change the world by exploring their revolutionary ideas and have a mindset to challenge that which already exists, all while creating something meaningful and impactful. Startups pitch investors while research groups submit grant proposals. Both rely on a compelling value proposition to justify funding and are on the hunt for brilliant minds to produce excellent results.
Curiosity Driven Research is vital
Academics have the privilege to run several research projects in parallel, enjoy the infrastructure of a university, and are driven not just by what will satisfy investors, but by big ideas and making something truly different to stand out in their field. Ask Gartner, Forrester, or anyone with knowledge of a tech ecosystem and they’ll tell you that creating a new category, or a “blue ocean” technology is exceedingly rare. While the private sector and VCs produce innovation, they’re usually carving out an edge in a pre-existing market and focusing on more predictable returns rather than moonshots. But society needs moonshots and leaps forward, and many times it’s the structure and mindset in academia that delivers.
Large companies are more aware of the fact that they can’t just rely on their R&D and should turn to academics to acquire new technologies and know-how. Harvard Professor Henry Chesbrough termed this equation “Open innovation.” The European Commission recognized its value too and just launched the “Knowledge Valorisation Platform” with the goal of making research results work for society. However, this idea which is just catching on at the level of large-scale government initiatives is exactly what university tech transfers have been doing for decades.
Covid showcased the value of academia driven research and corporations capitalized
Ask yourself why the Covid-19 vaccine is called “Astrazeneca-Oxford.” During the early days of the Global Covid Pandemic in April 2020, the pharma giant AstraZeneca announced an agreement with Vaccitech Ltd and the University of Oxford for the development and large-scale manufacture of the Covid-19 vaccine. Academia’s impact was on full display as a leader in health tech innovation. When it came to the urgent need, AstraZeneca knew exactly where to seek the solution: academia. At the Hebrew University alone, the researchers submitted dozens of inventions tackling the Covid-19 pandemic: diagnostic and screening kits, protective masks, sanitizing solutions, not to mention drug repurposing or novel therapeutic approaches.
Large corporations, like AstraZeneca, strive to get early access to brilliant deep-tech solutions. In our case, Yissum (the technology transfer of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem) establishes long-term collaborations with business partners around the world and these include the biggest names like Google, Amazon, IBM, Samsung, P&G, and many more. Countless large corporations would like to get a foot in the door by arranging multi-year framework agreements and committing sponsored research funds. This helps those companies to voice their needs and get early access to innovative ideas in their respective domains.
Startups and midsized companies must embrace tech transfers too
When startups and mid-sized companies reach out to engage academic researchers in their R&D activities it’s a cause for celebration, but unfortunately far too much of a rarity. It’s the startups and mid-sized companies that earn the highest benefit from collaboration with academic research groups. Those mid-sized companies and startups have the power to bring academic ideas towards fruition and create highly competitive products and services. Not to mention, there is more benefit to employees and potential customers alike when new companies bring innovative solutions and competition to the market.
Curiosity Driven Research born from academia is vital in order to keep the best minds tackling the biggest questions in science. In Israel alone, they’ve spawned multi-billion dollar companies tackling humanity’s biggest challenges. Mobileye, which was the largest exit in Israeli history, and Orcam, which brings accessibility to the blind were both started from a professor’s research projects at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. There are countless ideas that could become the next unicorn or foster meaningful, innovative breakthroughs that just need the right partner. It’s up to tech ecosystems, startups, medium-sized businesses, and others to stop overlooking academia and curiosity-based research, embracing them will boost innovation and probably make the world a better place.