What MIT Can Teach Colleges About Becoming an Economic Powerhouse

The MIT campus in Cambridge, Mass. Photograph by Education Images/UIG via Getty Images

In 2011, two business school professors put numbers to an idea that many assumed true: that a vibrant research university can drive an economy. They studied companies started by alumni of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and found that those businesses had provided 1.7 million jobs and generated $1 trillion in revenue annually.

As more countries try to compete in the global economy, the pressure is on policy makers and university leaders to imitate the way MIT spurs innovation and economic growth. Unfortunately, many universities struggle to match the speed and success of MIT’s model.

Here are six ways colleges can transfer technology from the lab to the front lines of industry:
Start with stars. Universities with entrepreneurial ambitions need academic stars—researchers with big reputations and proven track records at getting grants. Not only do top scientists boost a school’s profile, they have industry contacts and instincts for spotting commercial opportunities.

Building star faculty in a number of frontier research areas will draw students, additional academics, and government interest. MIT, for example, is known for its work in artificial intelligence, neuroscience, nanotechnology, and biomedical engineering, among other areas.

Have academics lead labs. Commercial ideas are more likely to emerge from labs run by academic leaders who are driven to promote entrepreneurial projects. Without that leadership, it is hard to get new ideas out of the lab and into the marketplace. For example, the president of National University of Singapore (NUS) has played a pivotal role in successfully integrating entrepreneurship activities with research and education at the university.

Change the mindset. To spin ideas into successful companies, universities have to get students and academics to think more like entrepreneurs. MIT, NUS, and the University of California at San Diego do this through entrepreneurship centers that teach students how to push an idea through to implementation. Students learn to experiment, take risks, tolerate failure, and strive to overcome obstacles.

Beyond creating entrepreneurship centers, institutions have to create a culture that supports innovation. MIT’s motto, “Mens et Manus,” which translates from Latin to “Mind and Hand,” is a compass point that helps academic leaders make decisions about allocating resources and research activities to projects that can move quickly into the marketplace.

Remove the roadblocks. At too many institutions, the university technology transfer office (TTO) is a major roadblock—moving slowly or trying to cut deals with an eye on immediate financial return. A more balanced approach that considers longer-term prospects will pay off for the university and society over time. With that in mind, the TTO should lead an effort to streamline the identification, protection, and commercialization of intellectual property in order to encourage academic entrepreneurship.

Research shows that you also need policies that support risky efforts, such as allowing leaves of absence that let academics pursue commercial opportunities while holding on to their faculty positions.

Make the environment entrepreneurial. Successful spinoff programs need nurturing and resources. Set up a physical space in which aspiring entrepreneurs can test new ideas and quickly get them to market.

Money helps too, such as providing seed funding or introductions to potential investors and business contacts. Further ways to help include training workshops, shared services like IT, and mentors.

Build regional ecosystems. To increase the likelihood of spinoffs, encourage close ties with industry and government.

The gold standard is the relationship between Stanford and Silicon Valley. This  features a constant flow of research, teachers, students, and funding among the institution, its high-tech neighbors, and government. The university helped build a regional foundation that has produced globally prominent companies, creating thousands of jobs and enormous wealth.

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