USC's New Institute for Innovation

Krisztina Holly wants to tap the vein of innovation that lives on university campuses to benefit society as a whole

Krisztina Holly is a woman on a mission. The founding director of the prestigious Deshpande Center—which, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had funded research and connected MIT's innovators with venture capitalists and entrepreneurs to make ideas a commercial reality—left the East Coast last year for the sunnier shores of Los Angeles. Her new focus? To change the way the University of Southern California thinks about commercializing innovation, as vice-provost and executive director of the USC Stevens Institute for Innovation, which officially opens for business Mar. 28.

Previously known as SITeC, or the Stevens Institute for Technology Commercialization, and housed in the Viterbi School of Engineering, this represents more than just a name change: It signals a shift within the university to broaden its focus on innovation from what has, up to now, been a fairly tech-heavy emphasis.

Tech transfer has been a cash cow for universities in recent years (providing a way to make money from the patenting and licensing of products) but Holly wants to look past what she describes as "Google (GOOG) envy"—an earnest desire to re-create the staggering success Stanford had with its two man startup—to bring other departments into the innovation mix.

Positive Social Impact

By focusing so firmly on patents and licensing, she argues, universities and educational establishments are missing a more fundamental aspect of innovation, which can come from myriad, previously untapped sources and which can be used to benefit society as a whole.

As such, USC Stevens will take a more holistic approach, working with all of the 17 schools within the college, including the Annenberg School for Communication and the School of Cinematic Arts. And while there's currently much discussion about what innovation really means in a business context, her plan is to focus on ideas that not only make business sense but will have some kind of positive social impact (see, 2/12/07, "The Innovation Backlash").

As USC prepared to formally inaugurate its new institute with a day-long exhibition of work by faculty members and students, staff writer Kerry Miller sat down with Krisztina Holly to discuss her plans. Edited excerpts from their conversation follow:

Can you explain what you mean by "taking an idea and getting it into society"?

It's about more than just the ideas. It's about empowering innovators. We are introducing a very integrated approach that I don't think any other university has done. We are taking traditional technology transfer functions—and we are also providing educational programs for both faculty and students and providing connections and mentoring and showcasing their innovations, all under one roof.

What makes USC Stevens different from other university-sponsored innovation initiatives?

One of the unique things is that we're under the Office of the Provost, and we have a huge commitment from the provost to be a university-wide resource. We have 16 staff now, and we're growing to more than 25 over the next year. USC has 17 professional schools and many different research programs.

So we're not just working with our engineering school and with the School of Medicine, but also with a top-notch cinematic arts school and music school, and a school for communications. We are able to leverage all of these and really redefine what it means to do innovation. We're not just focusing on technological innovations, although clearly those will continue to be a very strong resource.

So what kind of commercial innovations will you get from, say, the school for communications or music or cinematic arts?

We have a lot of video gaming and a lot of digital media—and we also have students who are very eager to learn about how to get ideas out into the market.

But this is not just about commercialization—as I say, it's about getting ideas out into society. So we might work with a startup, or a nonprofit, or a Web site, or a community. We're exploring to see if there is a way to make a social impact outside of the traditional venture-backed startup. That model will be a very big part of what we do, but we also want to explore to see if there might be a way to work outside of those traditional models.

How has your time at the Deshpande Center affected your approach here?

I learned a lot while I was there. But at USC Stevens, we're really focusing on taking an integrated approach that will do more than just give out grants. We're pretty much revamping the whole operation to focus on how to support the innovator, because one of the things that I learned at MIT was it's not just about the money. It's about empowering the innovators and getting them connected with the right people—and creating a community from within and also outside the university with experts from business. It's about having a shared sense of enterprise.

Who have you been working with to date?

We're working closely with angel investors and VCs here and in the Bay Area. We're also doing outreach within the university and talking to students and faculty in the different schools. My background is as an engineer and an entrepreneur, so I understand what it takes to take a technology and commercialize it, but what's really unique here is our opportunity to reach out to the fine arts school or the music school and try to figure out how to work together with all these folks. That's what's so cool about innovation; it's the common language between academia and the marketplace.

It seems like at other schools, there's a pretty big divide between the entrepreneurship centers that are more student-focused and the tech-transfer offices that are more faculty-focused.

We're doing it in an integrated fashion. So we do have a top entrepreneurship center here, which is fantastic. But we're trying to reach across the whole university, not to segregate students or faculty but to make them all a part of one central hub. When I speak with angel investors, VCs, or entrepreneurs and corporations that want to learn more, a common problem is they don't know where to start. We provide that starting place.

Tech transfer has certainly been profitable for universities. Why is it important to broaden your innovation strategy beyond this?

Stanford made a killing on Google, and all the universities want to do the same thing, but the problem is that that's the wrong reason to do anything. Stanford didn't do it because they wanted to make money. I think that to be successful, you can't be greedy, and by focusing only on the potential financial gains, you end up becoming difficult to work with. Our goal here is to help these ideas get out. Obviously, we want to get a fair return on the investment that we've put into them, but that's not going to be our primary focus.

What other benefits do you see coming from USC Stevens?

Well, it's also an effective recruiting tool. We want to be seen as a place that attracts the most innovative faculty and students. The salaries and benefits are so high in the private sector—especially within life sciences—that without this, I think that some of the best faculty might get lured away.

What has been the student response so far?

We're in the process of doing a student/faculty survey, and while we don't have the final results yet so I can't speak to the figures exactly, close to half the students say that they have had an idea while they're at university that they thought would make a good business—that they would love to have some help with. That number was staggering to me. It's exciting to have such enterprising students.

Click here to view a slide show of designs from the exhibit.

With Helen Walters in New York.