Office of the President

Dr. Patrick T. Harker is the 26th president of the University of Delaware. He also serves as professor of business administration in the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics and professor of civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering.

National Academy of Inventors
University of South Florida, Tampa
February 22, 2013

First, I want to say what a pleasure it is to be here with such a distinguished group of co-panelists. I'm especially glad to see Eric Kaler, who left the University of Delaware shortly after I arrived—though I've tried not to take it personally.

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What might make Delaware's story unique in terms of promoting and facilitating innovation is how recently this goal became an institutional priority, and how much we've tried to accomplish in a relatively short time.

When I took on the presidency of UD in 2007, one of the first units I created was the Office of Economic Innovation and Partnerships, focused on two interrelated priorities: linking academic research with industry application, and building a reliable process to connect inventions with the capability to secure them and extract their value.

Neither was a groundbreaking idea, but what I saw at UD was a university trying to catch up to new paradigms. I saw incredibly talented faculty undertaking a lot of groundbreaking research, hatching innovations, writing papers—and then moving on to the next project.

I knew we could get more research out of the lab. And I knew that when we set these efforts in motion, we'd see the accumulating effect. Because the most dynamic faculty want to be where innovation and entrepreneurship are valued.

The point was to create an entrepreneurial ecosystem—a self-sustaining network that brings together people, capital, services and ideas to give UD's entrepreneurs a support structure and a pathway into the business community. So we began building the components: an IP center, a venture development center and a tech-transfer center. Now we're embedding tech-transfer personnel into our colleges and institutes to ramp up invention quality and quantity.

We streamlined the patent procurement process, made it more efficient and more transparent. We began hosting targeted conferences and forums. We brought the state's Small Business and Technology Development Center and its government contracting center into UD. We launched a two-track venture funding competition and a student hatchery. We established an entrepreneurial studies minor and an MBA concentration.

We're trying some fresh things, too. Our new Spin In program matches entrepreneurs developing early-stage innovations with a team of UD students who can further develop the technology and marketing. The team is mentored by a faculty member, and they work in the entrepreneur's own space for an authentic clinic setting. Then the team spins the technology back out of UD so it can be readied for commercialization.

The first company to spin a product into UD was appSYGNA, a company that digitizes large data sets. The UD team achieved the project's objective—integrating existing media-management technologies into a consolidated video-management platform. But, during development, the team also created an entirely new set of software products for the company. And the faculty mentor and company owner are now submitting a joint NSF I-Corps proposal. One of the students got a job out of the experience, and his professor says he now knows how to teach entrepreneurship better. It's been incredibly successful.

Alumni have proved critical to this entrepreneurial push. One alumnus has taken on the cause of helping us grow our modest $700,000 proof-of-concept fund into a $5 million pool.

A $3 million gift from an alum last fall established the Horn Program in Entrepreneurship, which gives students the chance to conceive, validate and launch a high-growth startup. It expands our venture development center, establishes an online resource exchange, provides outreach to high schoolers and features a giving challenge that triples donors' recognition credit. Because the program has a strong student focus, it's easier to get alumni engaged. And it builds this community of innovation that's the basis of all our efforts.

This may be easier to do in Delaware than anywhere else. When you're as small as we are, there really is a feeling that we're all in it together—that government, industry and academia all have a decisive role to play in making Delaware a state of innovation.

We're seeing real growth here. UD is developing a 272-acre Science, Technology and Advanced Research Campus, where we're planning a 45,000-square-foot incubator to house UD startups and spinoffs, along with the companies outgrowing the space and capabilities of the tech park down the street—a park that is itself a partnership among the state, the University and Delaware industry. We've got productive, innovation-generating partnerships with the Army, SAIC, NRG and others.

But from the University perspective, there's still more to do. With federal agencies increasing their scrutiny of research expenditures and evaluating ROI more closely, the universities with strong commercialization infrastructure will be way ahead.

There are practical things we can do right now. For instance, at UD, we're establishing a system to identify external PIs to collaborate with faculty on SBIR grants, and connecting them with companies that can collaborate in areas of need.

We can offer faculty sabbaticals specifically for startup development. We can offer turn-key business services with pre-negotiated rates—accounting, incorporation, payroll—the processes that science and engineering faculty especially find so distracting.

We can tear down systemic barriers to commercialization that persist because historically siloed faculty had to devise their own workarounds. And we can prove to faculty that the metrics of innovation matter—that we value what they do.

I thank NAI for opening this discussion about what that value proposition looks like, about how we encourage science that goes beyond the academy; and how we place impact alongside originality in P&T decisions.

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