By Eric J. Toone
Originally published in TechCrunch
The Princeton Review and U.S. News & World Report recently published rankings of university entrepreneurship. Among the top 12 schools, the two lists share but a single institution — Babson College. How can two highly regarded agencies compile lists of excellence that have virtually no overlap?
At one level, the answer is obvious: The two groups use different criteria and so arrive at different rankings. But the use of two sets of criteria that yield such wildly differing results suggests a much deeper problem. A lack of consensus regarding what to measure implies a lack of consensus about the goals of university entrepreneurship: It’s hard to measure success when you don’t know what that success looks like. So what is the role of entrepreneurship at the university?
The relationship of the university with society changes continuously. In his classic treatise on the university, John Henry Newman made the case for an educational mission; more particularly, liberal education. The rise of the research university, first in Germany and later in America, provided another role for the university — that of the search for knowledge. The Morrill Act of 1862 and the creation of the land-grant university offered yet another role for the university — to “promote the practical education of the industrial classes.”
Finally, the democratization of the American university through the middle of the 20th century brought education to the masses, along with the creation of programs more akin to training than enlightenment. Today, most universities accept, in varied measures, the dual roles of creation and dissemination of knowledge.
Today, too, the university seeks to engage the world around it, and to use the university as a means to do good in the world. At Duke, for example, we list Knowledge in the service of society as one of our enduring values. “Our work forms an arc, spanning from inquiry through discovery on the one end and translation into practice on the other.”
MIT’s recently announced $5 billion Campaign for a Better World includes Innovation and Entrepreneurship to accelerate “the path from idea to impact.” The university does good in the world through that translation into practice — converting the fundamental knowledge that grows at the university into real things and real actions that have real consequences for real people. And that translation at the university is entrepreneurship.
This conception of university entrepreneurship does not divert attention from the long-established roles of teaching and research. Nor does it turn faculty into business men and women. Rather, it asserts that ideas form the basis of human advancement, whether in science and engineering, the arts, public policy or law. It holds that the means by which those ideas are converted into action are understood and can be taught. And it proposes that the impact and relevance of the university is enhanced by creating an infrastructure and a culture that allows the ideas that grow at the university to be converted to action, whether or not the conversion involves those who conceived the ideas.
This formulation of entrepreneurship does not turn from the ethos of liberal education. Newman’s notions of the interrelatedness of knowledge are as relevant today as they were in 1853. But surely the application of knowledge, the use of that knowledge to solve real-world problems, is a part of the learning. In 1936 Alfred North Whitehead recognized and embraced such a notion explicitly:
“The applications are part of the knowledge. For the very meaning of the things known is wrapped up in their relationships beyond themselves. Thus unapplied knowledge is knowledge shorn of its meaning.”
Powerful examples of university entrepreneurship abound, from the hepatitis vaccine to the Honey Crisp apple. University entrepreneurship is CalTech’s Carver Mead, father of the modern VSLI computer chip and founder of at least 20 companies in all aspects of microelectronics. University entrepreneurship is Matthias Gromeier, an associate professor of neurosurgery, and his team that developed an oncolytic poliovirus that provides a cure for the deadliest form of brain cancer — malignant glioblastoma. Today, patients treated with the virus are alive nearly three years after diagnosis; untreated one-year survival rates are near zero.
University entrepreneurship is Suhani Jalota, a Duke undergraduate who constructed a factory in India to provide low-cost sanitary pads for women living in the vast slums of Mumbai. Suhani and her co-workers aim to replicate the model in 500 slums across the globe. University entrepreneurship is Eli Sachs, an MIT professor of engineering who developed a new low-cost way to make silicon solar cells. Sachs left MIT to build1366 Technologies, a company with production facilities in upstate New York that aims to make solar power cheaper than coal. University entrepreneurship is Michael Prywata and Hermano Krebs, whose startup Bionik Laboratories from Ryerson University in Toronto is developing exoskeleton robots that will allow victims of neurological disease and accidents to walk again.
The 21st-century university will engage more fully with society than at any time in its past. Our value proposition is that knowledge enables a better tomorrow. We realize that promise through the translation of great discoveries into new cures, new technologies and new practices. We realize that promise by training young men and women after the liberal tradition of Newman, but at the same time instilling in them the notion that ideas have power in their application, and that knowledge enables progress through action. Entrepreneurship — the translation of ideas into products and actions — will live at the core of that university.