Here in the Bay Area, we have a great system for getting entrepreneurs into, and ideas out of, the local universities. Between the venture capital community and programs like Y-Combinator, which tap into the best young minds at Stanford and other schools, we get a lot out of our schools — there’s no organized method, but what we have works.
That’s not the case in most parts of the world, including the remainder of the United States. Academia is generally well separated from business, and innovative ideas from both students and dedicated researchers often stays locked up in the Ivory Tower, for lack of a clear path out.
The surprising thing is that relatively few universities have made any attempt to provide a well defined pathway. True, some research moves into the private realm — a good example is solar-cell companies like Suniva, which came out of Georgia Tech — but for the most part such private ventures are driven by a rare breed of independent, entrepreneurial-minded professors, and in this case, a red-hot market for solar.
I recently met with Steffen Moldow, the founder of a new international conference based in Denmark called CopenMind, to talk about the lack of a good system. Moldow created CopenMind to provide a place for universities to show off their licensable technologies to both big business and venture capitalists.
To get an idea of whether universities would be interested in showing off their ideas, Moldow visited hundreds around the world last year. He says the response has been overwhelming. With half a year still to go until the event, over 140 institutions from around the world have signed up to exhibit their tech.
The first conference has a cleantech theme, and future events will go on a rotating schedule — 2008 is energy, 2009 is health, and so forth. But Moldow has gotten enough interest that he’s already thinking about splitting off smaller regional conferences. (These charge for both admission and exhibitions, so he’ll likely make a pile of money in the process.)
CopenMind is interesting to me, but what’s even more interesting is the question it raises. If there’s an obvious monetary incentive for both businesses and universities to open up better pipelines for collaboration, why haven’t they done a better job? And more importantly, what can be done now?
One possibility is to mirror a new Department of Energy program that gives VC firms an entrepreneur-in-residence in major national laboratories like Sandia and Oak Ridge. Large, research-focused universities could likely support similar programs.
To find out more about CopenMind, go here.