The aged wall that has separated academe from enterprise is now being gleefully torn down on all fronts. Idea-hungry entrepreneurs, comprising the recession’s fastest growing business group, are uniting with the university talent pool, finally able to take some profit from participation. America’s strongest creative force is teaming up with its greatest knowledge resources. And the government is urging them on.
Last May the Governor’s Task Force on Higher Education, chaired by former Governor Tom Kean, recommended “better private enterprise/university collaboration to spur innovation.” Its report urged re-establishing the Commission on Science and Technology, which could “maintain a database of current university research and intellectual assets and equipment.”
To help create a longer-range vision of this industry/academe sharing, the New Jersey Entrepreneurial Network will present its “University Resources for Entrepreneurs” conference on Wednesday, February 2, at noon at the Rutgers University Visitors’ Center in Piscataway. Cost: $50. Visit www.njen.com.
Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno will be the keynote speaker. Katherine Kish, co-executive director of Einstein’s Alley, moderates a panel representing several major state universities. Members include Judith Sheft, associate vice-president of the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s Technology Department; John Ritter, Princeton University’s director of the Office of Technology Transfer; Michael Pazzani, Rutgers University’s vice-president for research and graduate and professional education; Malcom Kahn, Stevens Institute’s vice-president of enterprise development and licensing; and Vince Smeraglia, director of Office of Patents and Licensing for the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.
“Universities hold a wealth of help for entrepreneurs that goes far beyond just technology transfer,” says Sheft. “We can offer businesses student aid and interns, faculty collaboration with grants, use of equipment, and link with individual researchers.”
For the last 14 years Sheft has labored at NJIT to bring academic talent and archived ideas to the benefit of business. Growing up amidst technological innovation, Sheft spent her youth with both parents involved in chemistry research, and living in Oak Park, Illinois, home to the largest collection of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings.
Sheft attended the University of Illinois, graduating with a bachelor’s in mathematics in 1976, followed by a mathematics master’s, and an MBA from Penn. She began work with Bell Labs of Indian Hills in her home state, moving to New Jersey to join Westinghouse. She served several major firms, including Agere Systems, the semiconductor subsidiary of Lucent Technologies. She also helped negotiate the Agere/Lucent alliance with NEC Corporation, and with AT&T’s trivestiture. Before coming to NJIT, she helped found the Licenz Group, an IP consulting firm.
Entrepreneurial aid. “Grants are the life blood of academe,” says Sheft. “Faculty members and researchers know the mechanics, topics, and language, making them ideal partners for the entrepreneur.” The business owner working to develop a product for, say, the Defense Department’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) or the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) can find the process boggling. Partnering with a university researcher can provide not only a boost to prototype research, but to funding as well.
Business incubators now span all parts of the Garden State. The 12 university-backed incubators of the New Jersey Business Incubator Network www.njbin.org) boast more than 520 client companies. These firms are provided with mentors in legal, accounting, marketing, funding strategies, and other areas. They also are able to rent inexpensive campus space and use expensive equipment that many high-tech startups require but cannot afford. “Each of these incubators has its own specialty,” says Sheft. “Rutgers has the EcoCenter, we focus on high tech. If we don’t have the right fit, we steer them to the incubator that does.”
One of the greatest benefits NJIT and other universities offer is linking up the right people. Hundreds of entrepreneur/inventor matches have been made through poster sessions and periodic conferences run by all colleges in the state. This is where moldering archived papers may first spark into profitable products.
Faculty start-ups. For years the rules were strict and unrelenting. No professor could take any profit from any invention in which he played a part. He could not start a for-profit company based on his research. All research results and all royalties belonged entirely to the university, since he was laboring for it and using school equipment. In short, the university researcher’s entire impetus to create lay in academic accolades.
Professors are hired by colleges to develop their knowledge and primarily pass it on to students. For this development, the institution places graduate-student labor, huge libraries, and free equipment use at the professors’ disposal. To gather these tools up, go for the personal gold, and turn one’s back on students is a temptation universities seek rightly to avoid.
However, universities are also among our greatest engines of knowledge. It is only sensible to have the authors of these socially beneficial inventions receive every aid and remuneration. “Today we and all publicly funded institutions are held to a strict code of ethics,” Sheft says. “This prevents conflict of interest and places the university job foremost. But now faculty may participate in the income they help generate.”
Sheft’s transfer department has led many faculty down that profitable road. Her NJIT office even encourages faculty members by linking them with its own exhaustive roster of entrepreneurs-in-waiting.
Students connect. Despite popular parental opinion, the goal of a college education has never been highly remunerative job training. Universities historically have designed courses and curricula to produced a richer life, not a richer paycheck. Yet now students and alumni are afforded increased opportunities to put their freshly trained intellects to practical use.
“It’s a win-win for both the skilled student and the entrepreneur who brings him aboard to fill the firm’s need,” says Sheft. The computer tech field is among the most typical, but business owners come to Sheft’s offices seeking a whole range of specialized individuals. Frequently a student with the right skill fit can transform his new business routine into a class-credit project.
For employers seeking help not tethered to the scholastic semester schedule, university intern programs offer employers a blend of expertise and thrift. Expanding by sheer demand, NJIT’s intern program now includes graduate students and even recent alumni. One caveat here: university career service offices are not doorways to slave labor. If all you seek is cheap grunt workers to perform tasks others in the office won’t touch, you will not only be denied, you will be missing a great opportunity. A good career office can supply you with enthusiastic expertise that matches the far more costly private contractor or consultant.
It has been claimed that every individual has a touch of larceny and a touch of capitalism in his soul. How much larceny is open to question. But as to capitalism, it appears that both gown and pinstripe exhibit equal shares. It only makes sense to let these enterprise and academic factions join hands across the crumbled wall and provide us with the useful entities we need.