A New Innovation Model for the 21st Century
In this photo taken Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013, University of Washington students study in the Suzzallo Library on the campus in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
American universities are more able now than ever before to compete with technology start-ups. Specifically, on innovation leadership.
This may appear counterintuitive, given the conventional view that higher education can be staid, stodgy, insular and inflexible. And it might even appear to be outlandish, given the fast-growth and capital-raising muscle of so many entrepreneurial endeavors right now.
Yet, as the leaders of cutting-edge campus-based research institutes, we strongly believe that higher education is developing an efficient and effective new model for 21st Century innovation.
Our institutions are the ones delivering breakthroughs in a wide variety of critical next-generation fields like data science, clean energy, and regenerative medicine, among others.
University research institutes such as ours eliminate sclerotic silos and bureaucratic boundaries by deftly blending teams of super-smart students, faculty, and research scientists from interconnected subject areas. As a result, these institutions stand the best chance of identifying and solving the toughest scientific and technological challenges of our age – they are confronting tomorrow today. The University of Washington, where we work, has a system of centers that has seen success and can serve as a model for research institutions across the country.
The Institute for Neuroengineering, for example, has linked biology, data science and computational neuroscience to deepen our understanding of neural systems and develop the next wave of devices and algorithms that will assist the 1 billion people around the world with neural disorders such as traumatic brain and spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy.
The Institute for Protein Design brings together high-level talent in computer science, biochemistry, genome science, biological structure, pharmacology, immunology and other basic science disciplines, as well as clinical medicine. The result is a new cadre of proteins that are changing therapeutics, vaccines, drug delivery, clean energy and materials science.
The Clean Energy Institute is melding molecular science, manufacturing, battery technology, sophisticated information technology and leading-edge software and hardware tools to accelerate the adoption of new solar energy and electrical energy storage materials, devices and systems, as well as their scalable integration with the grid.
And the eScience Institute is driving the advance of data-intensive discovery across our campus – including partnerships with the three institutes above. It has made UW a leader in bridging the gap between the disciplines inventing new methodologies for data-intensive discovery, and the disciplines whose future relies on the utilization of these methodologies – creating an ever-accelerating virtuous cycle of innovation.
These institutes stand in stark contrast to the traditional university structures of schools, colleges, and departments, which take years to create and decades -- if not centuries -- to eliminate. Success in the 21st Century depends upon agility. When an opportunity presents itself, bring together the optimal set of individuals to respond. When another opportunity succeeds it, restructure.
None of this would be unfolding without a host of equally untraditional investors who provide “thoughtful capital.”
The Washington Research Foundation, which has supported each of our research institutes, is a good case in point. Founded in 1981 and led by President Ron Howell, WRF has continuously advanced early-stage university research in the life sciences, physical sciences and information sciences by providing more than $60 million in gifts since 1994.
Other universities are expanding the reach and role of their research institutes in similarly promising and positive directions.
Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment, for instance, is the hub of interdisciplinary environment and sustainability research on Stanford’s campus.
One of the powerful forces behind the proliferation of university research institutes is the simple fact that most sciences are now computationally based, and there’s a need to find new institutional structures that help marry scientific inquiry and data-driven discovery. That’s one of the reasons why UW’s eScience Institute joined forces with the University of California at Berkeley and New York University in a five-year, $37.8 million project funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
University research institutes aren’t just focusing on data and the hard sciences. Recently, for example, the eScience Institute’s Joshua Blumenstock co-authored a paper, Mobile divides: gender, socioeconomic status, and mobile phone use in Rwanda, which used machine learning algorithms and mobile phone metadata to estimate the distribution of wealth and poverty in East Africa.
Blumenstock’s publication embodies the eclectic and innovative potential of the university research institute. Unfortunately, this kind of serious, committed and inter-locking intellectual diversity is in short supply today, but it’s essential if we’re going to confront the world’s complexity in the name of progress, growth and quality of life for billions of people everywhere.