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Universities’ role in innovation economy now firmly established

by Laura Tomaka ~ June 2014 ~ Stateline Midwest »
Leaders at Wichita State University have a vision for boosting innovation development and high-tech commercialization in Kansas.
This year, the state Legislature bought into that vision, allocating $2 million (as part of HB 2506) for a new Innovation Campus that will house early-stage entrepreneurial companies and partner with high-tech businesses. Lawmakers also restored $500,000 for the university’s National Center of Aviation Training, a welcome decision for the state’s aviation manufacturers and related industries that have clustered in Kansas.
These actions in Kansas underscore a major trend in U.S. higher education — the growing role of universities in technology-led economic development. Ten years ago, this role was just beginning to be understood and encouraged. Today, it has been widely accepted.
However, these universities’ success in cultivating innovation can vary by school and by state, according to authors of the recent study “Innovation U 2.0.”
The study’s authors focus on “12 case studies of exemplary, innovation-producing universities.”
One of these (the only one from the Midwest) is Purdue University. As just one example of the school’s efforts, it has opened an Innovation and Commercialization Center that helps get university-based inventions and discoveries to the marketplace.
The center, the study’s authors note, continues a longtime leadership commitment at Purdue in support of innovation — from adopting entrepreneurship curriculum and certification programs, to developing research parks across the state, to creating technology-based business partnerships with the state’s industries.
“I’m coming around to the point of view that leadership and culture trump everything else,” says Louis Tornatzky, one of the report’s two principal authors. “It means very loudly and consistently championing innovation, entrepreneurship and industry partnering.”
That was certainly the case in Kansas, where university leaders took an active role in convincing legislators to pass HB 2506.
Universities, meanwhile, have begun to nurture innovation in more ways. More attention is being paid to student entrepreneurship, rather than simply on faculty research and industry partnering.
“Entrepreneurship as ... a focus of study and research, a curricular offering in terms of majors or courses, and as ‘co-curricular’ activity [such as contests and business incubators] has become one of the fastest-growing activities in universities,” says Tornatzky, a retired professor who co-directs the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at California Polytechnic State University.
The role of state legislatures in fostering innovation-producing universities is not always as direct as this year’s example from Kansas. Tornatzky says overall higher-education funding is critical as well, and that legislators should also try to understand how their university system operates and push its leaders to prioritize innovation.


Article written by Laura Tomaka, staff liaison to the Midwestern Legislative Conference Economic Development Committee. The committee's co-chairs are Michigan Rep. Eileen Kowall and Nebraska Sen. Heath Mello.