With over 250 billion dollars in endowment and intellectual firepower unrivaled anywhere in the world, this country's research universities are the crown jewels of our society. But these grim economic times and the complexity of the world's biggest problems demand that universities become problem-centered engines of innovation and increasingly adept at execution. There is increasing evidence that leaders in higher education are responding to the challenge:
- At a recent discussion of entrepreneurial science, Bob Langer, one of the world's most innovative scientists, announced that MIT has designated world-wide challenges a campus-wide priority and both Stanford and the University of North Carolina have articulated similar initiatives.
- Multi-disciplinary problem-based initiatives of all kinds are supplementing traditional departmental structures on campuses nationwide. Bio-X, which brings together physicians, chemists, physicists, biologists and engineers, in an effort to attack challenging problems in human health, is a model for such an approach.
- It is becoming easier to turn innovation into enterprise with support such as that provided by the Desphande Center and Launching the Venture and streamlined processes for licensing such as the groundbreaking Carolina Express Licensing program.
- Entrepreneurship and strategic thinking are being injected into the mix. At Harvard, President Drew Faust has invited Professor Michael Porter to help her leadership team develop a campus-wide strategy, and at UNC, Chancellor Thorp has formed an Innovation Circle to suggest ways of creating an entrepreneurial culture that encourages world class innovation and execution.
To complement the new Huffington Post College Page, students from my first year honors seminar have launched a new website called Engines of Innovation which will chronicle university initiatives aimed at fostering innovation and all kinds of entrepreneurial activity -- commercial, social, scientific and artistic. The site will also include video interviews with thought leaders such as Professors Bob Langer and Joe DeSimone on scientific entrepreneurship, Professor Michael Porter on innovation strategy, and Professor Greg Dees on social entrepreneurship. Opinions on what actually are the world's biggest problems will also be included. A group of fascinating bloggers have agreed to join in, and best practices from around the country will be documented and posted.
Where the site is headed will, in large part, be determined by its readers. Hopefully, a community will develop interest in the potential of our great universities to become true engines of innovation. Have a look and consider joining the conversation or starting a blog. I plan to participate regularly and contribute excerpts from an upcoming book I co-authored with Holden Thorp, Engines of Innovation—The Entrepreneurial University in the 21st Century. The challenge facing our great universities to repay our nation for all it has invested in us is daunting, but if ever there is a time for us to rise to that challenge it is now. I am confident that my colleagues and our students are up to the task.