In a recent BusinessWeek article, Turning Research into Inventions and Jobs, Vivek Wadhwa and Robert E. Litan propose hastening technology commercialization in order to rapidly boost the U.S. economy. They suggest this as a response to Adrian Slywotzky's August BusinessWeek article, that encourages increased funding for basic research as a means to turn-around the economy and provide much-needed jobs.
While both proposals involve the investment of billions of dollars, the Wadhwa/Litan plan seems to be more feasible for short-term impact. The two indicate that there is no shortage of research, and in fact, is lying fallow, yet to be translated into practical usage. They say, "We consider this shortfall academia's equivalent of Alaska's ‘bridge to nowhere'".
Their solution is to nurture start-ups by researchers that move innovation forward. This would create jobs for more than just scientists, which seems to be a fatal flaw in Slywotzky's proposition. As a plus, Wadhwa and Litan suggest that by focusing on commercialization of existing technology, universities could generate licensing royalties to finance continued basic research. If this scenario plays out as described, it would prove a boon to the economy as well as to science.
The authors analyze the shortcomings of the current university technology transfer system to explain why only .1% of federally funded basic science research resulted in commercialization. One of the factors Wadhwa and Litan focus on is the paradox of science and business. Their suggested plan entails scientists functioning in an entrepreneurial fashion to commercialize their innovations.
Tom Katsouleas, Dean of Duke University's Business School, has suggested a program called PhD+, which would use federal funds to provide entrepreneurship training to PhDs. He envisions chemists, physicists and other scientists immersed in marketing, finance, HR and product development before participating in an incubator program. Successful participants would receive seed funding, lab space or other resources to move their innovation far enough along to entice venture capital or angel investors.
The authors further cite a need to restructure the mission and metrics of university technology transfer functions to facilitate entrepreneurship activities. Otherwise, these inefficiencies will persist and there will continue to be "stunning amounts of stellar science that remain tucked in the lab forever."
Turning Research into Inventions and Jobs is available online at www.BusinessWeek.com.
Vivek Wadhwa is an entrepreneur and a senior research associate at the Labor & Worklife Program at Harvard Law School and executive-in-residence at Duke University.
Robert E. Litan is the Vice President for Research and Policy at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and a senior fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution.