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UT Arlington National Academy of Inventors Symposium

October 30, 2014
College Park Center


Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. It’s a pleasure being with you today at UT Arlington’s first Innovation Symposium, the launching of a chapter of the National Academy of Inventors, and the formal induction of its founding members.

Before I begin, I’d like to acknowledge Dr. Carolyn Cason, our vice president for research, who is herself a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors and has been the driving force behind today’s Innovation Symposium and NAI chapter launch. Without her drive, all of us would not be here. Thank you, Carolyn, for all that you’ve done for innovation at UT Arlington.

One might wonder why this is such a big deal, and perhaps even more critically, why a university is so involved in invention and innovation. After all, the generic model for universities has been based on the archiving, discovery, and dissemination of knowledge—not competing with the corporate world. The modern university owes its structure to the 1862 Morrill Act, the subsequent 1887 Hatch Act, and the 1914 Smith-Lever Act, all of which emphasize the transfer of knowledge to society, including through the use of extension centers throughout the state. Although patenting at universities can be traced as far back as the 1920s, the general implication was that inventions, and more importantly, commercialization were the province of those who wanted to make money—and in some academic circles, even today, that is in conflict with scholarship, the purity of discovery, and the concept of pursuing knowledge for its own sake.

The period between World Wars led to a change in the mission of universities, with focused research now being conducted at universities due to funding from the Department of Defense and the Atomic Energy Commission. This was followed by the formation of the NIH in 1948 and the NSF in 1950, which led to significant emphasis on faculty-led research at universities. This was still heavily focused on what we would call fundamental research. This changed dramatically in 1980 when two senators, Indiana Democrat Birch Bayh and Kansas Republican Bob Dole, sponsored a landmark bill that Congress passed as the Bayh-Dole Act. It allowed universities to own and license, to the private sector, intellectual property based on their discoveries made with federal funding. The primary purpose of the act was to energize the U.S. economy. This was further highlighted through the imposition of “March-In” rights. If the universities did not enable commercialization of the technology, the federal government could step in and give licenses to someone else. The Bayh-Dole Act probably had more of an effect than any other single event in encouraging the formation of large university-industry-government consortia, established with very specific goals for the development of new technology that could be commercialized. A change in philosophy—with universities now playing a specific role in economic development.

Research enterprises, often as large as, and competing for the same funding with corporate research labs, were now seen to grow in academe. While there are still discussions over the actual impact of the Bayh-Dole Act on actualcommercialization and economic development, there is no doubt that it changed the academic landscape immeasurably, making the university a partner and often a catalyst in economic development. According to a recent study by the Biotechnology Industry Association, the economic benefits of university patent licensing from 1996 to 2007 were staggering: a $187 billion impact on U.S. GDP and a $457 billion impact on national gross industrial output, with over 270,000 new jobs created as a direct result of inventions developed through university research.

Today, we are in an environment that has most, if not all, universities expanding their research enterprise beyond fundamental research to a continuum that increasingly includes economic development as a core mission. Societal expectations, especially as related to tax dollars, now go beyond the traditional three-legged academic stool of teaching, research, and service. The university mission often explicitly includes the phrase “economic development.” In fact at many universities, the top administrator for the research enterprise carries the tag of “Research and Economic Development” or “Research and Innovation” and has dedicated staff who run technology incubators, tech parks, and who work actively on spinning off companies based on student and faculty inventions. The three-legged stool has added at least two more legs—outreach to the corporate world for technology transfer, and commercialization from within.

In past decades, the greatness of a university was measured by its stable of Nobel Prize winners, setting the university apart from others as a leader in fundamental research—a fountain of scholarship. From the mid-80s through the early 2000s, impact and influence were correlated to levels of research funding with universities such as Johns Hopkins, University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin, University of Washington, and UCSD—the top five in the list of funding, being considered the very best. These five in fact accounted for $6.81 billion in research expenditures in 2012, about 10 percent of the overall higher education R&D for that year. Stanford University, MIT, and UC Berkeley, often considered as powerhouses previously, were ranked No. 9, No. 15, and No. 20, respectively, on that list in comparison.

Today, however, the greatness of a university is measured not just in terms of research grants and contracts, but also in how the university impacts and changes the world and society at large. While in the past we would have liked to be the intellectual and cultural center for the city and region, they look to us now to be much more—the socio-economic hub and a catalyst for economic development. This necessitates universities now going further—not just discovering knowledge, but also implementing it—and even further by commercializing or, at minimum, enabling its commercialization. We all know the stories behind MA Route 128 with MIT, Harvard, Tufts, and Boston University, of Silicon Valley around the intellect of UC Berkeley and Stanford, and of the I-40 corridor between Orlando and Tampa, which has transformed that region, the research triangle between Duke, UNC, and NCSU, and even San Diego—changed from a tourist destination with great waves and beaches to the center of telecommunication, cellphones, and biotechnology, built through UCSD. But the sheer magnitude of the impact is perhaps not known as well.

For example, in 2012, 156 active companies had been founded by alumni, staff, and faculty of UCSD, generating $15.3 billion in annual sales and providing jobs for 18,400 employees. Companies formed by entrepreneurs from Stanford and MIT were estimated in that same year to generate worldwide annual revenues of $2.7 trillion and $2 trillion, respectively. Influence and impact from invention and innovation—what more could society look for. Universities, in that sense, are not only good for the economy and financial well-being of a community—they are essential.

In order to unleash the potential of university research to result in true innovation, there is a need for scholarly activity that translates research into commercially viable processes and technology. However, the traditional university is not ready for this. Success needs faculty members, and an administration, with a different working mindset and mode of operation than that focusing on the conduct of just basic research, or even applied research. It essentially requires that researchers and faculty are allowed, and even enabled, to engage in translational work that does not necessarily result in outcomes that are generically considered as being critical for the advancement of one’s career, such as publications. This is a change in philosophy for a culture where perhaps James Watt and Thomas Edison would have, in their own time, been thought of highly, but not granted tenure!

This is an important point and one that needs careful consideration, especially in terms of the disconnect and misalignment at most universities between the desire for a change in ethos toward a culture of innovation and technology transfer and the incentives afforded to faculty members through the advancement of their academic careers in terms of merit raises, tenure, promotion, and even the ability to work with the corporate sector. To truly encourage innovation, we need to not only encourage efforts at commercialization, but also build an environment that is supportive of it. Scholarly effort—tremendous amounts of it—goes into the creation of inventions, their translation into patents, innovation, and spinoff companies. Just as a painting, or a sculpture, or a play is considered scholarship in terms of creative activity on the faculty member’s part, so too should the development of inventions, commercialization, and the establishment of a company based on that very creative activity that now generates wealth and employs people.

Changes such as these are accelerated through concerted effort and recognition at a national level of the criticality of our universities engaging actively in innovation—the creation of knowledge not just for its own sake but as a means of economic development and the advancement of the region served by that university. At its simplest, this is merely the modern version of the Morrill Act—a 21st century land grant mission, moving from the transfer of knowledge about the “agricultural and mechanical sciences” to transfer of technology. Put another way, the creation of intellectual capital is now merged with economic development.

Our nation is served in the areas of engineering, science, and medicine by three national academies—the National Academy of Science, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. The NAS was established by an act of Congress, signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, and charged with “providing independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology.” Based on the changing and critically important needs of the times, the NAE and the Institute of Medicine were founded under the NAS charter in 1964 and 1970, respectively. The 21st century requires another focus, one emphasizing innovation as a catalyst for growth and encouraging academe to rapidly engage not just in the development of intellectual capital but also of economic capital.

In this vein, the National Academy of Inventors was established in 2010 with the mission of “honoring academic invention; recognizing and encouraging inventors; enhancing the visibility of university and non-profit research institute technology and innovation; encouraging the disclosure of intellectual property; educating and mentoring innovative students; and translating the inventions of its members to benefit society.” This fall, U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross of Florida filed federal legislation that would grant a federal charter to the National Academy of Inventors, similar to that of the three previous academies, and in doing so further support the importance of invention and innovation to the success of our nation and our economy.

Today, the National Academy of Inventors represents not just its fellows, similar to the other national academies, but in the spirit of engaging the larger community—in emphasizing the collaboration needed for innovation, also has more than 200 member institutions—those who are committed to its principles and its direction as a national resource and a force for competitiveness of our economy.

The mission of the NAI is perfectly aligned with the mission of UT Arlington, which is to be an internationally recognized research institution, one that is distinguished by excellence and access through transformative knowledge, production, and education based on scholarship, collaboration, innovation, creativity, and global impact.

That is why occasions such as today’s Innovation Symposium are so critical to the life of an individual institution like UT Arlington and to the life of all of academia. They give us time to pause, to listen to our peers, to dream of new solutions, technology, and processes that will serve to better the human condition and improve lives for all of society.

As we continue our forward motion, I have no doubt in my mind that the University must be an economic hub for Arlington, the North Texas region, the state of Texas, and beyond through the creation of knowledge, technologies, and innovation. We have a social responsibility to take the knowledge created within the University and move it out as rapidly as possible—and make it available as widely as possible—for the betterment of our cities, our society, and humankind. Knowledge is of limited use when left on dusty shelves. It is transformed when translated into innovation and then sees real value when it sees light through commercialization and widespread use.

I’d like to acknowledge all our NAI fellows. They represent what this University is all about—knowledge, innovation, and a “can-do” attitude that makes them the very best. I’d also like to congratulate all those who are being inducted as members into the UTA chapter today. They represent an important part of academe’s future—a willingness to bridge research and application. And I’d like to thank all those who are here to support us, to see what is going on, and to hopefully partner with us as we move toward a brighter future—a city and a Metroplex that are thriving and growing and a University that is held up as a shining example of how to do things right.