Closing the academia-startup gap

The high-tech industry — heck, industry in general — would be better served if academic researchers did more to bring the fruits of their labor to market faster. Or at all. That’s an old argument brought up anew by Matt Welsh, a software engineer at Google(s goog) who, in a recent blog on the topic, asserted that universities should act as VCs to bring the best of their projects to market.
Welsh said academics spend their careers working on prototypes that never see the light of day. “I sure never built anything real until I moved to Google, after nearly ten years of college and grad school, and seven years as a faculty member,” he wrote. That, in his view, is a huge waste. Others agree.
In an interview with GigaOM, Gautam Shroff, VP of Tata Consultancy Services and head of the TCS Innovation Lab in Delhi, said one of tech’s top priorities should be to accelerate commercial adoption of key academic research. “Innovation is not coming from enterprise IT, it’s coming from the consumer sector and academia. Companies need to better exploit that resource,” Shroff said.

The university as VC?

Here’s Welsh’s proposal toward that end:

What I’d like to see is a university with a startup incubator attached to it, taking all of the best ideas and turning them into companies, with a large chunk of the money from successful companies feeding back into the university to fund the next round of great ideas. This could be a perpetual motion machine to drive research. Some universities have experimented with an incubator model, but I’m not aware of any cases where this resulted in a string of successful startups that funded the next round of research projects at that university.

Stanford University’s StartX program probably comes closest to what he has in mind, but he’d go further to build a university around an incubator model, where faculty members are expected to transfer technology and the “whole structure of the curriculum and research programs are centered around the idea of spinning out spinning out companies,” Welsh said via email.
For example, for all the startups coming out of MIT, that school has no formal incubator program. Instead, it licenses technologies developed there to outside companies.
In email, Welsh acknowledged the need for a firewall between pure research and projects explicitly spun out to companies. In his vision, the university acts as the venture capitalist. “But, instead of using the funds to make individuals rich, you put the money back into a pool used to fund the research activities. Only when something spins out as a company will its IP be transferred to the company.”
“My argument is not that this would replace traditional universities,” he said, “but I could see this model being very attractive to students and faculty and of course makes it possible to to make a boatload of money.”
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Hugo Pardo Kuklinski