Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Education, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship

I am in Cambridge to participate in a conference on innovation and education sponsored by the Cambridge-MIT Institute (CMI). It was really a stimulating day: I wanted to share a few ideas and observations before running for the plane.

Background: CMI is a collaboration between Cambridge Univ and MIT, created by the British government six years ago to stimulate entrepreneurial growth. It is responsible for overseeing six "science enterprise" MPhil programs at Cambridge, ranging from computational biology to nanotech, sustainable development and socially aware tech policy. I graduated from the MPhil program in biotechnology a couple of years ago, a wonderful mid-career experience. Several of us were invited back to participate in a discussion of how the programs could be improved: Achieving the Knowledge Economy: Integrating Technology, Management and Policy in Graduate Education

The conference attracted a diverse group of academic, government, and industry participants to discuss both successes and shortfalls of the courses. The programs had developed clear goals to foster technology transfer, stimulate business understanding, and develop social policy, and had implemented a coherent high-quality network of lectures, resources, internships, and relationships. I hadn't realized the scope of their effort: 130 lecturers in biotech alone, apart from the business classes, for the 25 students in the program. Challenges resulted mostly from resistance to interdisciplinary and industry-linked programs at the University, and institutional diversity that hindered creating consistent teaching methods and assessment standards across disciplines. Hardly surprising for an 800 year old collection of colleges, though.

There were three good areas of discussion.

First, can entrepreneurs be created in the classroom and by internships?

There was agreement that it takes intense individual insight and passion, and that the best that the programs can do is to hand out the tools and show the way.  Practical business plan competitions and meetings with seed-fund investors may give further motivation, but the consensus was that it's unlikely (even undesirable) to force a clever bench scientist to become a tooth-and-claw startup.

Second, what is the proper role of industry?

I think that MIT has gone too far over, becoming more of an incubator than a research institution (I think Stanford has a better balance). Part of it stems from MIT's reliance on large-company partnerships, and in gauging their success by placing grads in senior roles in big finance, defense, and manufacturing companies.

The UK prefers smaller-scale enterprises, less industry counsel for academic programs, and more reliance on shared business activity through clusters. This is a better model, to my mind, but they have got to help provide better access to small scale equity finance (~50K GBP), facilitated connections into their collaborative clusters, and mentoring approaches to business plan creation and startup development.

Finally, what prevents graduates from starting businesses?

Social conservatism and fear of failure, according to the government reps. I'm not sure of that, though: I'm concerned by how many graduates go into consulting rather than into product development. They say that they want more experience and understanding of business before taking on a project themselves. I think this lack of confidence leads them away from something that they are perfectly able to do. Better use of networks, consultancies, and mentoring by seasoned industry professionals during (and after?) the program would be worth trying.

Overall, though, it raised a lot of interesting questions about identifying, nurturing, and developing talent and ideas to their full potential.

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Logo credits Cambridge MIT Institute

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