Skalak: Better Collaboration and Translation Fuel U.Va.'s Innovation Engine

October 29, 2009 — America must innovate its way out of the current economic downturn, as innovation is the key long-term driver of economic growth and national wealth, explained Robert Bruner, dean of the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business, on Tuesday evening at U.Va.'s Morven Farm.

He and Thomas Skalak, U.Va.'s vice president for research, discussed "Innovation: Role of the University in a Creative Economy" at the inaugural event of the new Morven Seminar Series, before an invited group of about 50 people, primarily U.Va. faculty and staff. The session was held in Morven's recently renovated Meeting Barn.

They discussed how universities have long been major sources of the basic research that underlies innovation, and how in recent years U.Va. has put more emphasis on better translating that research into partnerships that directly serve society. That process has required more collaboration – across academic departments, across areas of expertise, across schools, and across the traditional divide between researchers and those who can support translation to product development, like business incubators, investors and corporate partners, Skalak said.

U.Va. has already had some significant success in translating basic research into useful products, and is working on institutional changes that will make collaboration easier and better reward those who do so. But better fostering cross-domain efforts and research translation means shifting academic culture to embrace the full circle of research from new ideas to market introduction and back to the lab again, Skalak said.

One success story is a Wallace H. Coulter Foundation Translational Partners Award of $1,000,000 a year for five years to the Department of Biomedical Engineering (one of Skalak's personal areas of expertise), in partnership with the School of Medicine, the Health System, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, Darden School of Business and the U.Va. Patent Foundation.

The Coulter Award, which began in 2006, funds six to nine U.Va. research projects per year, with awards ranging from $5,000 to $100,000. It also has helped U.Va. better connect research ideas and projects with 'downstream' support (usually outside the University) needed for translating research, by building relationships between researchers and venture capitalists, investor networks, start-up businesses, business incubators, corporate partners and funding foundations.

The Coulter partnership's success is evident in several metrics, Skalak said. The 40 resulting patent disclosures over the past two years is 10 times the national average per dollar of investment, and the conversion of 50 percent of those into commercial licenses is more than four times the national average.

As for interdisciplinary collaboration spanning U.Va., a handful of recent projects have tapped into enthusiasm for this type of work, Skalak said.

For instance, the U.Va. Bay Game was created by a diverse group of 15 faculty from eight different schools and more than 200 undergraduate students. (The "game" is an interactive computer model of the six-state Chesapeake Bay watershed that allows participants to take on the roles of watershed and Bay stakeholders and policymakers. Each participant's actions and decisions influence the outcome for every other participant, whether a crabber or a farmer or a company or a community.)

"People are hungry to do this kind of work, because people want to feel part of something bigger than themselves," Skalak said. "They want to make a difference in the world. It's a basic human drive."

Better fostering cross-domain efforts and research translation means encouraging new aspects of academic culture. In some problems, the pursuit of deep expertise in a narrow domain of study is appropriate. In many of the most complex problems facing society today, however, encouraging faculty and graduate students to look "laterally" and engage with those in other areas is "critical to ensuring that all of the great talent at our university is brought to bear on these significant social issues'," Skalak said. "It is a different way of thinking."

Looking laterally and working to translate research brings many dividends, Skalak noted. "Faculty do better basic research after immersing themselves in complex translational challenges."

The job market also has long favored expertise in narrow domains, as most companies don't operate like Google, famous for hiring insightful people, no matter their original field of expertise, Skalak noted. While Skalak has heard from a number of Fortune 500 company presidents that they desperately want new and senior employees who can work across domains, that focus has not necessarily yet filtered down to impact the hiring practices at the companies, he acknowledged. But corporations are gradually heading in that direction, Skalak suggested.

"I think people are becoming aware that they have to remain open to change, and that having talent that's collaborative and open to change is the only way you stay ahead in the long term," he said.

In the meantime, Skalak and others in U.Va.'s leadership are working on making it easier to work across domains, and better rewarding those who do so. Already, Skalak's office is advocating for those faculty who have undertaken highly collaborative work. Formal review standards that take collaboration into account, using metrics such as the number of new collaborators on a project, might stimulate wider adoption of the practice, said Skalak.

The leadership of U.Va. are excited to see a future of enhanced collaboration and innovation emerging at U.Va., and Skalak noted "ultimately success in this direction is attributable to the faculty and students who make it happen."

U.Va. is well-suited for fostering innovation because of its medium size, Skalak explained. U.Va. is large enough to be a major research university, with a comprehensive breadth of scholarship at its 11 schools, but small enough (compared to other major research schools like the universities of Michigan or Texas) that it's easily navigable. On top of that, U.Va.'s distinctive collegiality fosters cross-domain connections.

In the continuum of efforts that make up the research and development process, the research side is dominated by universities and small businesses (often startups whose seeds germinated on a campus), explained Darden dean Bruner. They can incubate technology with unknown promise – the technology that often leads to significant "disruptive" innovation – in contrast to less-risky incremental improvements to existing products (the "D" side of R&D) that make up the bulk of efforts by larger and more established firms.

Historically, both of those engines of research – universities and small businesses – are not slowed by downturns, Bruner said. So, while the downturn is bad news for investors and employees, it doesn't seem to significantly disrupt the "innovation ecosystem."

Better connecting the various parties in that ecosystem promises to better realize U.Va.'s potential as an innovation engine, Skalak said.

— By Brevy Cannon