Written by: Lior Weizman
Translated by: Deborah Moher
When academic research is hard-pressed to keep up with the fast pace of innovation in the private sector, it has no choice but to reconsider existing paradigms. At a recent conference, top officials in academia and industry debated the various challenges and ways of overcoming them.
Original article: http://www.themarker.com/techblogs/liorweizman/1.2801478
Univenture2015 took place this week at Tel Aviv University’s Coller Institute of Venture. For those unfamiliar with its work, researchers at the Coller Institute are examining one of the most interesting fields in venture capital today, one linking innovation with investment. It’s at this juncture that innovative solutions are born, with new companies forming that are helping to drive the economy forward.
The Coller Institute has been instrumental in researching different investment trends, the history of venture capital and deep innovation ( i.e. such specific fields as nanotechnology, brain research, water, etc).
In 2016, research will focus on Univenture, or “University Venture”; examining the risks and opportunities faced by universities in the 21st century in light of the changes and shifting trends taking place in the world.
In his opening remarks at the Univenture conference, Tel Aviv University President Professor Joseph Klafter said, ‘’We are in an era where we as a university need to re-think a model we have worked with for hundreds of years.”
An example of this new era in academia, noted Klafter, is a new investment fund, Momentum, launched by Ramot, TAU’s technology-transfer company.
Half of the conference was devoted to a workshop exploring how universities maintain their traditional role and relevance in light of the rapid changes taking place in the world of innovation. During the workshop the participants (I had the honor to be one of them) discussed and debated changes that need to be made to universities to ensure they remain relevant in the near future.
What’s the Challenge?
Every academic institution has three main goals: Research (new knowledge), education (transfer of knowledge) and influence (ensuring the knowledge is used to create a positive impact on society). For every university, there is a different relationship or tension between these three goals. (For example, The Weizmann Institute deals mostly with generating new knowledge whereas most universities spend the majority of their time imparting knowledge to society.)
However, above all this lies a greater challenge — our ever-changing reality. In the present day, innovation is no longer spawned in a laboratory; in our digital age, it is a rapid process, and the slow pace of global academic research struggles to compete. IBM reached a market value of $150 million within 83 years; it took 27 years for Apple, and two weeks for Facebook to reach the same value.
In this climate, there is a case to be made that universities are not the forum most conducive to new and innovative research. Some might claim that classrooms should be replaced with more efficient online methods, and question whether it’s appropriate to invest taxpayers’ money in universities, since in the end (due to global factors) many researchers and entrepreneurs eventually move their operations out of Israel.
Professor Yaron Oz, Rector of Tel Aviv University, has said that recruiting leading academics, who have practical experience, to the university remains one of the biggest challenges. These individuals can greatly contribute to the university’s innovative vision and drive research. The same also applies to students; the challenge is to identify and recruit those students who are interested in creating change rather than merely scoring top marks.
What can be done?
For conference participants, Univenture 2015 was an opportunity to take a step back and consider our next moves. At the event, various representatives from the world of academia presented different projects, which were prime examples of how best to bring innovation to the forefront of academia.
Professor Yael Hanein, Director of TAU’s Center of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, presented the activities of the unique center, which was established at TAU to encourage scientific discoveries, which are subsequently developed and repurposed for the Israeli market.
Univenture 2015 also presented an opportunity to examine ourselves as a society. After discussing the challenges, various scholars discussed measures already taken to push academia to the forefront of industrial innovation.
Prof. Neta Ziv, representing Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Law, presented the activities of The University’s Law and Welfare Clinic, which founded the Workers Union, which incorporates over 10,000 university employees. Additional examples presented included, innovation pertaining to branding (Hebrew University), immigration and religious conversion (Ben-Gurion University), and commercialization of academic initiatives in the 21st century (Technion).
Participants later worked in teams to come up with possible solutions to the challenges presented. At the end of the event, groups presented points they discussed as well as different insights, including:
Should academic research be judged through its potential for financial gain? Such as in accordance with a process normally reserved for the private sector. Should academia be focused on producing equity and jobs? Should business development protocols be integrated into course syllabi? Should industry be consulted with regard to research proposals, dashing the future of studies that lack any lucrative potential?
Should the university create and manage investment funds designed to support ventures stemming from within? Are the offices responsible for transferring and commercializing technology (through a technology transfer office) serving as deterrents to the industry? Should a more flexible mechanism be considered, one which includes, for example, cooperation with venture capital firms? Should rewards given to researchers and students, encouraging entrepreneurship-promoting activities, be institutionalized? Are Israeli university alumni organizations contributing to the link between academia and industry?
How can we better nurture the entrepreneurial spirit of our students? Should we encourage collaboration between different faculties, even in those faculties not traditionally associated with entrepreneurship, i.e. the arts, humanities, and even certain sciences? How can we integrate more people into industry-oriented projects? How can universities encourage students from abroad to get involved with startups in Israel?
How can we encourage interaction and ensure dialogue between those in hi-tech and those in academia? Investment funds rarely invest in individuals, so why are individuals carrying out most academic research? Should group research be required? Is it possible to create scenarios (similar to water cooler conversations that take place at companies) to encourage dialogue between students and faculty members?
Could an experienced entrepreneur take a project out of academia and transform it into a business venture? Why is this transfer more successful in the field of biotech, for example? Should academic researchers be encouraged to advise commercial entities, thereby fostering a relationship between the two parties and earning additional wages?
A panel moderated by Prof. Eli Talmor, Chairman of The Coller Institute and Lecturer at the London Business School, was chosen to close the event. Talmor said that, “the digital revolution has created even more changes than those produced by the industrial revolution. Academia as a result, faces a substantial threat. Many students today want to know how their university experience will afford them an edge in entrepreneurship and innovation, and situate them eventually in leading companies.”
Yigal Erlich, former Deputy Chairman of the Israel Council of Research and Development and who in 1993 founded the initiative to leverage venture capital investments, pointed out that when launching a European Union R&D program (Horizon 2020) there were those who criticized the large transfer of budget to academia. There is a consensus that there should be a focus on commercializing ideas. There is a need for more transparency, teamwork, and activities that better nurture the resources of universities.
Prof Moshe Zviran, Dean of the Faculty of Management at Tel Aviv University, also spoke on the panel, and told participants that, “when we think about strategy, we think about what we excel in; not in strategic studies, not in economics, we are the Start-Up Nation, and therefore have to be the best at teaching entrepreneurship and innovation. We now have tracks at the university that focus on entrepreneurship and innovation and a number of our lecturers hail from the industry. We send our best innovators to accelerators abroad, but no one works on our local accelerators. We are trying to move away from the ivory tower model to become a light unto students and our community.”
Prof Zviran has a lot to be proud of, as Tel Aviv University now ranks in the top 10 leading universities in the world in the number of graduates who later become entrepreneurs, and 11th place on the list of 25 business administration MBA programs in the world whose graduates became entrepreneurs.
Dr. Yesha Sivan, Director of the Coller Institute for Venture, presented some conclusions for what’s next. ‘’We are only just starting out, and face a particular dilemma since we are actually researching ourselves. The question is, will we be like NOKIA, which just disappeared from the map, or like Apple, which managed to reinvent itself.”
More information about the event and its participants can be found on the Univenture 2015 event page.