“Universities should reexamine, reimagine and restructure their innovation ecosystems to intentionally support students in commercializing, protecting and sharing their innovations.”
Higher education is undergoing a seismic transformation as a result of a once-in-a-century pandemic. Administrators and faculty worldwide are quickly overhauling how they provide instruction to students while trying to keep them on the path to graduation. With change in the academic space already underway, now is the time for colleges and universities to reinvent their innovation ecosystems and implement the intellectual property (IP) education methods and policies that students need to thrive in our knowledge economy.
Why the Focus on IP?
The importance of IP in an economy where patents, trademarks and copyrights often determine a business’s competitive advantage and success cannot be overstated. My firsthand experience with IP goes back to my time as an orthopedic surgeon and inventor. I have always had a passion for making things, and when I became a surgeon, I began engineering medical devices to help my patients achieve better health outcomes. Later, when a multinational medical device corporation infringed on my patents, I was able to win a favorable court ruling and a substantial fortune that I used to launch charitable foundations and initiatives, including The Michelson Institute for Intellectual Property (Michelson IP).
Since the early 2000s, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines have surged in popularity among college students. STEM education is seen as a winning ticket to a career in various high-growth industries. Unfortunately, university innovation ecosystems have not received the same attention or development, evidenced by underinvestment in IP education and policies that hamstring students in an age where IP can be an innovator’s most valuable asset.
Universities should reexamine, reimagine and restructure their innovation ecosystems to intentionally support students in commercializing, protecting and sharing their innovations. This investment will enable student and faculty inventors and future entrepreneurs to build talent, value and pathways to wealth creation.
The VentureWell Report
This spring, the team at Michelson IP collaborated with VentureWell to underwrite a study on the perspectives of faculty, administrators and students on university-based IP education and policy. VentureWell is a leading nonprofit supporting educators in implementing a hands-on approach to learning while helping students develop and commercialize innovations. A central takeaway from this effort is that it should be a priority for innovation-minded educators and institutions to reimagine our universities’ innovation support ecosystems in order to better align them with what VentureWell describes as the “ideal state” of a university-based system. The elements of this “ideal state” include:
1. Clear Guiding Values
During my time as an inventor, I didn’t define success by how many patents I was awarded, but rather how my medical devices improved patient outcomes. The ideal university innovation ecosystem is similarly outcomes-oriented, while also being transparent and understandable. The VentureWell report reveals that universities must first outline what they wish to achieve, or define a measure of success, such as job creation, economic growth or social impact. These clear guiding values must be deeper and more impactful than de facto measures such as quantity of awarded patents. As every institution is unique, each should develop its success metrics as influenced by specialties, community needs and resources.
2. Meaningful IP Education
I have long advocated for addressing the lack of broad IP literacy across our institutions of higher learning. With this mission in mind, I created Michelson IP, an initiative that provides free IP education resources for institutions (over 300 to date), and works alongside faculty in promoting IP awareness. In 2018, we partnered with the University of Southern California (USC) to debut one of the nation’s first undergraduate courses on IP – “The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Intellectual Property.” Led by IP lawyer Luke Dauchot, and featuring talks by IP leaders from prominent companies and startups, the course for students from all academic disciplines was such a resounding success that it was given permanent status in the curriculum. Other institutions can look to USC as a case study in creating an IP curriculum that is applied, timely, outcomes-grounded, and linked to support systems. Since it is impossible for students to understand the complexities of IP in a single 45-minute lecture, institutions should integrate IP education more comprehensively within curricula and create cross-discipline opportunities.
3. Comprehensive University Support
VentureWell’s study found three common challenges within innovation ecosystems that universities must address in their plans: 1) IP is complicated to understand fully, 2) weak communication among university departments, and 3) unsupportive university policies. University stakeholders and departments should be open to regular communication, and partner to identify pathways and referral mechanisms that support students and faculty. Schools should also structure university IP policies that mutually benefit the institution and students, while centralizing resources to better prepare students to navigate the IP registration process. These challenges make for poor innovation experiences, but they can be overcome.
4. Building External Connections and Community
Innovation never happens in isolation. It requires builders, thinkers and experts across disciplines and skillsets. When remodeling their innovation system, schools should bring law firms, pro bono attorneys, experienced alumni, venture capitalists and subject matter experts into the fold to increase available resources and foster community. Just as the success of the Michelson IP initiative has relied on the generous help of many experts and advisors in our network to develop curriculum, content, and community, our institutions of higher learning need access to external connections to provide greater knowledge and strategic advice to students on the complex topic of IP. I encourage IP Watchdog readers to get involved with entrepreneurship centers, law school clinics, and capstone programs at your alma maters and to help nurture, mentor, and support the next generation of innovators.
A Critical Element: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
In March 2020, before California locked down to combat the spread of COVID-19, I had the pleasure of speaking at the IP Awareness Summit at UC Berkeley, where I stressed the need to address the unique opportunity gaps and challenges faced by female and minority innovators. Fast forward just a few months to our nation’s current civil rights movement and reckoning with systemic racism. It is more apparent than ever that we must make deliberate efforts to champion greater diversity and inclusion within university innovation ecosystems.
According to the Innovation Alliance, people of color and low-income individuals apply for and hold far fewer patents than white males, contributing to an imbalance in entrepreneurial and startup success rates. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that fewer than one in five patents are held by a woman inventor. At the current rate of progress, women inventors are not expected to reach parity in patenting until 2092.
Our country cannot afford these imbalances. In addition to addressing social injustice, we need all the innovation we can get to maintain global competitiveness. Narrowing opportunity gaps and helping to eliminate barriers impeding young underrepresented innovators will help put long-hoped-for equity and equality within our nation’s reach.
Seizing the Moment
The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing universities to make structural changes to the processes traditionally used to educate and prepare bright minds. This crisis is an opportunity for institutions to rebuild their innovation ecosystem into one that is outcomes-oriented, promotes IP literacy across disciplines, and leads to wealth creation. A study by America’s Small Business Development Centers and The Center for Generational Kinetics reveals that 49% of millennials intend to start their own business within the next three years.
Americans have an entrepreneurial spirit. By nurturing it at the university level with the proper education, policies, and resources, we can support students on their way to solving the world’s greatest challenges through innovation.
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