The Link Between Higher Education & Economic Development Must Remain a Priority in Pa. (Pt. 1 of 2)
By Reed McManigle, Mentor in Residence
Carnegie Mellon University Center for Technology Transfer and Enterprise Creation
For 35 years, I have been immersed in the startup support ecosystem in Southwestern Pennsylvania, including working at the tech-based economic development program that is now known as Innovation Works, the technology transfer office at University of Pittsburgh, and the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse. I have been in the technology transfer office at Carnegie Mellon University since 2006, where my role now is to advise faculty and PhD students as they seek to form and grow startup companies as a strategy to bring their research results out to where they can benefit society.
I can tell you from experience that spinning startups out of universities is fraught with challenges.
Universities are the crucible in which research turns into new knowledge, and they produce a continuous stream of cohorts of young people who have developed and learned about these latest discoveries and knowledge. These basic science discoveries and the young graduates have the potential to modernize our existing economy and to generate entire new industries. The process of translation of those research results into commercial endeavors, and the retention of those graduates in our state, however, face many obstacles.
Among these obstacles are:
University research and the federal funding that typically supports it are generally not focused on commercial endpoints. University technology is not ready for commercial application and is too early stage for traditional investment support. Private sector sources will not fund the de-risking of the technology and adaptation to commercial prototypes. Federal support for translational development work is a small fraction of the scale of funding for basic research and inadequate to meet the needs. The Valley of Death to get from research result to engagement with a prospective customer must be crossed before most investors will be interested.
Academic researchers are typically not skilled in entrepreneurship and commercialization and have very demanding responsibilities in conducting research, teaching students, seeking funding, etc. They need to partner with outside entrepreneurs and mentors and need to have the opportunity to develop business skills.
The retention of new graduates is made difficult by competing offers from Silicon Valley technology giants that make the option of joining or creating a smart underfunded startup seem like a risky career choice. Archaic immigration laws also discourage many of our brightest graduates from staying in the United States, let alone our state. Robust funding programs for early-stage startups can present opportunities to reduce the financial risk for new graduates to pursue entrepreneurial endeavors.
Universities have developed a wide range of programs to support the exploration and development of startups. In the years since the Ben Franklin Partnership program was created, all the research universities in the state have expanded the number and sophistication of their staff that manage inventions and support commercialization. They have a range of programs such as internal Entrepreneurs in Residence, startup co-working space, business pitch competitions, cohort-based mentoring programs, entrepreneur-scientist matchmaking programs and the like. These programs educate and support researchers and students as they explore the potential commercial interest in their work and take the initial steps to form startup companies. The level of support and the volume of potential startups coming out of our state’s research universities have increased dramatically, but university programs struggle to keep up with the growing demand.
Pennsylvania is fortunate to have built an economic development ecosystem that provides entrepreneurs and start-up businesses with a robust offering of support and world-class resources. This unique combination not only gives our state a competitive advantage in an increasingly crowded field of competitors, it also gives a blueprint for how we can emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and work to bolster our economy. Now more than ever, Pennsylvania must continue to ensure the link between higher education and economic development remains strong and endures for future generations who proudly call the commonwealth home.