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April 19, 2007

Southern Cal Gets Innovative

The University of Southern California has tapped Krisztina Holly, the founding director of MIT's Deshpande Center -- which connects MIT's innovators with venture capitalists and entrepreneurs to make ideas a commercial reality -- to set up a similar center for it. Holly began her new adventure last month when she was named vice-provost and executive director of the USC Stevens Institute for Innovation. An interview in BusinessWeek discussed what Holly's arrival means to the university ["USC's New Institute for Innovation," with Helen Walters, 29 March 2007].

"It signals a shift within the university to broaden its focus on innovation from what has, up to now, been a fairly tech-heavy emphasis. Tech transfer has been a cash cow for universities in recent years (providing a way to make money from the patenting and licensing of products) but Holly wants to look past what she describes as 'Google envy'—an earnest desire to re-create the staggering success Stanford had with its two man startup—to bring other departments into the innovation mix. By focusing so firmly on patents and licensing, she argues, universities and educational establishments are missing a more fundamental aspect of innovation, which can come from myriad, previously untapped sources and which can be used to benefit society as a whole. As such, USC Stevens will take a more holistic approach, working with all of the 17 schools within the college, including the Annenberg School for Communication and the School of Cinematic Arts. And while there's currently much discussion about what innovation really means in a business context, her plan is to focus on ideas that not only make business sense but will have some kind of positive social impact."

Holly understands the true meaning of innovation. Innovation is about taking ideas and bringing them to fruition. She also wants these innovations to have a positive impact. The really creative thing that Holly is doing at USC is breaking academic silos to create a Center where Medici Effects can take root (see my earlier post -- The Medici Effect). Holly says:

"It's about more than just the ideas. It's about empowering innovators. We are introducing a very integrated approach that I don't think any other university has done. We are taking traditional technology transfer functions—and we are also providing educational programs for both faculty and students and providing connections and mentoring and showcasing their innovations, all under one roof. ... This is not just about commercialization—as I say, it's about getting ideas out into society. So we might work with a startup, or a nonprofit, or a Web site, or a community. We're exploring to see if there is a way to make a social impact outside of the traditional venture-backed startup. That model will be a very big part of what we do, but we also want to explore to see if there might be a way to work outside of those traditional models."

Holly has a deep understanding that fostering innovators may be just as important as promoting products. She is right -- see my earlier post The Age of Entrepreneurs.

"It's not just about the money. It's about empowering the innovators and getting them connected with the right people—and creating a community from within and also outside the university with experts from business. It's about having a shared sense of enterprise."

Since entrepreneurial innovators are an important economic driver, USC's approach is very promising. Holly indicates that a poll of students indicates that nearly half the studentbody believes they have an idea that would make a good business proposition. That is a pretty staggering statistic but it bodes well for the future if such ideas can be properly fostered. Even if those ideas prove impractical, the right kind of grooming for the students who came up with the ideas can help them hone their entrepreneurial skills. The long-term consequences of such grooming will be a more vital and robust economy.

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