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UCSD shifting innovation focus

With federal investment in university research flat-lining and China overtaking the United States as the top producer of Ph.D.s per year, Sandra Brown, vice chancellor for research at the University of California San Diego, said it’s time for a shift in higher-level vision at the university level, and UCSD is taking the lead.

“The vision that we’ve developed for innovation at UC San Diego is a major shift,” Brown said at a presentation and panel discussion at the Global Connect Summit Monday at the Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina. “It’s a shift from being the passive recipient of potential industry partners’ wishes to actually being an active partner in that.”

To encourage this focus on commercialization and technology transfer, Brown said UCSD created a Division of Innovation and Industry Alliances in 2012, and is giving more tools to students and faculty to move their research into practical applications faster. These include a therapeutic express license, engineering express license and opportunities for intellectual property return.

Second, the university is streamlining the decision-making process for faster response and better partnerships with businesses. The third facet is to revamp the faculty reward structure.

“Those of you who have not worked in a university setting may not be aware that really how people get promoted is through their publications that they develop and presentations that they give,” Brown said.

“They don’t normally get bonuses for developing patents. They don’t normally get additional merits for commercialization or licenses or startups, and so one of the things that we’re doing at UC San Diego is creating a new framework in which those kinds of activities can be considered part of the academic review, and will actually foster faculty in these areas.”

While the consensus among the five panelists who discussed Brown’s presentation was that the existing technology transfer process isn’t inherently broken, the topic of faculty tenure hit a nerve.

“I think the point is that scholarship is changing,” said Philip Bourne, associate vice chancellor for Innovation and Industry Alliances at UCSD. “What it means to be a scholar is changing quite dramatically, not just in terms of this idea of publishing papers, but also what you produce in terms of data you share with the community, software you produce and of course everything you might do around the commercialization.

“So we’re really, in other words, changing the rewards system. It’s going to take a significant amount of time, but when that happens it's going to make it more palatable for faculty to do these things, which is a good thing.”

Mark Skinner, vice president of the State Science & Technology Institute and director of the Regional Innovation Acceleration Network, said there are two ways to stimulate entrepreneurial spirit in faculty and researchers at universities.

“Either make faculty hungry — so get rid of tenure; that’s why students are a lot more entrepreneurial, because they are going to leave that university and need a job afterwards — or you make them greedy,” Skinner said.

As Bourne pointed out, UCSD’s efforts to restructure the faculty rewards system will take time, but Brown was confident that the university’s combined efforts will create a change in focus that will lead to a “superhighway for connectivity between basic science ideas and end product.”

“We’ve shifted from a sort of silo perspective, the ivory tower perspective, to being a partner and to working in all areas across campus on even single endeavors.”

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