Updates on Cognitive Training and University Innovation

Here are some news items that relate to a couple of recent posts of mine:

Not long ago I posted on the burgeoning use of games to improve one’s mental capabilities. Science Daily reports that Drs. Jimison and Pavel at the Oregon Health and Science University have correlated FreeCell playing ability with cognitive ability. They found that they could predict whether an aging individual has a cognitive impairment by comparing their FreeCell playing performance to the computer’s optimally-defined moves. The poorer the subject played, the more likely that they had developed memory problems that could lead to Alzheimers.

Pavel believes that as the elderly population increases…such home monitoring technology will become a health care standard. “In the near future, technology for unobtrusive monitoring, assessment and coaching will become a part of our everyday life…”

Part of the novelty of their approach was to alter the game so that it maintained the game’s difficulty at a constant level, keeping the game challenging regardless of the ability of the subject. The study only included nine subjects, so the conclusions are tentative to say the least. No mention was made about whether repeated playing of FreeCell could improve memory ability.

In an article related to my recent posts (here, here and here) on the relationship between universities and commercial innovations, this article by Peter Day from the BBC suggests that innovation does not come from universities except in the rare cases (those presumably including Stanford and MIT). British entrepreneur Stephen Allot is cited as saying that universities aren’t good at generating innovative ideas that can be commercialized into successful startups, and that the university’s role is to produce talented students who will create new ideas once they are exposed to market needs and commercial pressures.

Allot points to the fact that there is a large number of successful startups around Cambridge University yet the university has not benefited much from these successes, i.e., they have not been a direct part of their innovation. Cambridge University’s role in the creation of these companies has been to draw exceptionally talented students to Cambridge and to give them the skills to succeed once they graduate.

[Allot] calls this "people centred" innovation, linking PhD students with companies hungry for their insights with a network of involved corporate supporters of university labs….universities should not try to spot winners, but concentrate on what they are good at: attracting and improving really bright people who will go on to change the world with their innovations.

Personal Ideation Processes

Tom Foremski at Silicon Valley Watcher has a short post with succinct thoughts on how we generate and use ideas. I’d like to discuss the four points that I took away from his post.

  • Ideas should be shared

I come from an academic research background where researchers within the same field can often be very protective of their ideas for future research. The last thing academic researchers want is for someone else in their field to get the same idea, conduct the research and publish it before they do. Publishing is everything in academia.

When I was a graduate student, I used to get ideas for ways to further research that I read or heard at conferences, and I would squirrel away the idea in a notebook, intending to pursue the idea in the future when I had my own lab. Well, I soon realized that I would never be able to research anything but a fraction of the ideas in my list, so I eventually simply started sharing all of my ideas as they occurred in hopes that others would find them interesting and pursue the ideas themselves. Chances are, my ideas weren’t that unique anyway, and the conversations that ensued from talking about them were valuable enough.

A successful entrepreneur that I worked for at a couple of companies in Silicon Valley often said that having an original idea was not necessary to be a successful entrepreneur; in fact, most startup companies are based on ideas that have been conceived by many others. Successful entrepreneurs are able to find the right time/application/market for those ideas or technologies that already exist and can overcome the key hurdles that prevent those ideas from being a commercial reality.

At the first Emerging Entrepreneurs Conference at Stanford University in 2005, an audience of invited entrepreneurs was asked what the hardest part of being an entrepreneur was. Getting good ideas was not near the top of the most frequent responses (if I had a better memory, I could tell you what was at the top—I think raising capital or finding the right team members). In other words, good ideas are plentiful; execution and ability are the key difficulties.

  • Freeing ideas makes room for other ideas to flourish

Anyone who uses the Getting Things Done (GTD) method of organization can appreciate this concept. Part of GTD is getting tasks out of your memory and into a repository of information that can be referred to on a regular basis.

Any good researcher/scientist/engineer should have a method for storing ideas for future use and assessment. Anyone who is creative will generate many ideas, and chances are that the person won’t be able to remember those ideas a year later when the they are required for planning or research roadmapping. If someone has an new idea each week, what are the chances that all 52 can be remembered after a year of accumulation? Write them down. For years I have used Braintree as a way of organizing ideas into categories for future reference. Other equally capable software programs exist, even a running text file would suffice.

Once you write an idea down, the pressure is off to keep remembering it. Often, I find that an idea I had in my head looked less appealing once I had written it down and reconsidered it later on. The idea becomes less personal with time, and your assessment more objective.

Assume that you’ll have many, many great ideas. Figure out a process for managing them that works for you.

  • You get great ideas by having lots of them

In other words, don’t wait for the One Great Idea to hit. Generate lots of ideas. Talk about them, write them down, spend time thinking about them. Some will stink, many will be mediocre, a few will be great. Work the mediocrity and stinkiness out of your system so that greatness can occur. Write them down so that you can assess them all with a more objective eye later. And don’t be discouraged if you have ideas that keep getting shot down or don’t hit their mark. Practice will hone your ability to hit the target, particularly if you solicit feedback and discuss exactly what worked and didn’t work with your ideas. As long as you keep generating new ones, you really can’t complain.

All the best researchers and innovative people that I’ve worked with, by the way, are figurative fountains of ideas. They’re a joy to attend a conference with, to join at a local presentation, or simply to talk with over coffee or a beer. I suspect that the majority of start-up entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley fit this description.

  • Ideas are often created subconsciously and pop-up when we are alone with our thoughts

Foremski mentions the stereotypical idea-in-the-shower scenario, and defines why this is such a common occurrence. It’s because this is one of the few times that we are alone with our thoughts.

The reason we get great ideas in the shower is that this is often the only time we are not bombarded by outside chatter from the radio, TV, family, or colleagues. In the shower we have an opportunity to hear ourselves, and that’s the source of all our ideas.

As noted earlier, our subconscious does a lot of processing of data that we are exposed to, and we require time to ourselves with an undirected state of thought to pull those newly-generated to the surface. They’re not going to come to you in the middle of a meeting, while watching Survivor, while in a forced brainstorming session. They require room to grow and time to develop, and then the undisturbed waters in which to surface.

Responses to “How to Succeed with Industry-Sponsored University Research”

Sonicboom posted some great comments and questions in the Comment section of my recent post about industry-university collaboration. Because I have a lot to say in response, I’m posting my thoughts here rather than in the Comments section so that RSS subscribers don’t miss the discussion. You can read Sonicboom’s complete comment here.

Sonicboom asks:

What would you estimate is the percent of industry-sponsored research being performed at top-tier research universities?

The NSF reports that in 2004 $27.4 billion in university research was funded by the federal government while $2.1 billion was funded by industry. In the ‘02–’03 fiscal year, $30 million in industry funds were directed to University of California (UC) research projects through the UC Discovery Grant program, representing a fraction of the total industry-sponsored research funds that the UC system received that year.

The benefit flows both ways. University research has had a big impact on the biotech industry, for example. One-third of the public biotech companies in California were founded by UC faculty, including Amgen and Genentech. From 1996–2000, there were 172 UC research projects sponsored by the biotech industry alone, and the number of sponsored projects per year has certainly increased since then.

In your opinion, how efficient is the marketplace for turning ideas in university labs into marketable ideas? While you point out this is not the goal of university research, it is becoming a focus within most research universities with the proliferation of “technology offices” and incubators.

Transferring university research discoveries to the public domain so that the general public benefits from the results is not an efficient process in universities. The whole university research process has evolved such that research advances knowledge of a field and the results are disseminated through publications. There has been little focus on applying that knowledge or transferring it to industry in ways that benefit the general population.

Much of the engineering and scientific research at universities is motivated and directed towards real-world problems, but not all of it actually becomes used in a way consistent with that justification. For example, many of the speech, hearing and audio signal processing research grant proposals motivate their proposed research by saying that the results will help produce better hearing aids for the millions of hearing impaired people in the US. The reality is, though, that little of this research has had an impact on that industry.

The National Institute for Health is promoting a Translational Research initiative to attempt to transfer basic scientific results into the clinic where patients can experience benefit from the research. The NIH has motivated this by noting that the general public is funding the research through their taxes so they should benefit from this investment. Industry-relations and tech transfer offices at universities have some of the same motivations, in addition to seeking ways of generating revenue and research dollars outside of traditional avenues. As I pointed out in a previous post, however, there are several stumbling blocks to transferring university research to industry. They include:

  1. a lack of knowledge by university researchers about industry state-of-the-art and technology needs necessary to refine the research in a way that optimizes its potential for application;
  2. an attitude that applied research is distasteful and that working towards solutions for the general public is a violation of the ideals of scientific research (Going to the Dark Side is a term often used for university researchers who start to work with industry or for those who leave academia for a job in industry);
  3. the need to openly publish research results that is often at odds with the competitive goals of a company;
  4. the absence of someone who can find the sweet-spot in collaborative research who can define a project that will meet the needs of both the university and sponsoring company. This person would need to both understand the specialized university research and determine how the research could by applied to a product given the current state-of-the-art and the needs of the customer. This is a difficult task.

I hear bureaucrats drone on rather than creative, business-minded folks looking for ways to match the wonderful ideas they have in their labs with the companies that can turn those ideas into useful products.

As I just mentioned, matching university research to products is a great challenge. There are certainly many creative people at universities who could to do this, but they need a new type of training that typically doesn’t exist in universities except at places like Stanford, which has several programs for applying research to product development. The business people at universities facilitate the collaboration, but the definition of the collaboration requires specialized knowledge and exploratory work.

Additionally, research by Di Gregorio and Shane at the University of Maryland suggests that intellectual excellence and university policies are the most significant factors contributing to the creation of startups from university research, possibly accounting for differences across universities in startup activity. In 1997, for example, Stanford produced 25 new startups while Duke produced none, even though they both received from $300–400 million in sponsored research funding.

technology offices at universities…want to turn their  professors into entrepreneurs…This seems to conflict with the university’s primary goal of teaching…(and) to pursue their research interests.

Right, most professors aren’t interested in this type of work. A few universities like Stanford and MIT have successfully developed entrepreneurial programs over decades where the commercialization of research is accepted by faculty, and those universities now attract researchers who are looking to participate in this challenge. I believe developing such a system is not easy and requires a change in the mindset of the faculty and administration as well as the-development of appropriate policies and programs.

At it’s core, the commercialization of university research seems like a search or matchmaker problem…This “search” problem, which I like to call it, seems to present an enormous business opportunity for those who can create the right model for commercialization.

I think you’re right. This relates to my point #4 above about identifying the sweet spot. There is an opportunity to be the bridge between universities and industry for those interested in doing the work to connect research with industry. The challenge is having the expert knowledge to assess difficult-to-understand research and envisioning the commercial opportunity which requires expert knowledge of the industry.

How to Succeed with Industry-Sponsored University Research

Companies often fund university researchers to advance new ideas in their field, and university professors often seek funding from companies who create products that are related to their research. A while ago I posted some advice on how to facilitate research collaborations between academia and industry. I promised to provide more information, so here it is.

Listed below are issues that the university researcher and industry sponsor need to address early in the discussion process. Often, both sides are unaware that these can be potentially contentious issues until well into the work and the issue is staring at them in the face, at which point the relationship can start to strain. Answer the following questions up front, and the collaboration or sponsorship will go much smoother.

1. Why is the company interested in sponsoring this research?
Different companies have different motivations for funding university research. Some simply want an association with a nearby university or a leader in their field for PR purposes. This looks good to their customers, and having the researcher mention the company as a sponsor at talks and in publications can enhance the company’s image. If this is the case, then there will be little pressure from the company to provide details on progress and few inquiries from the company’s researchers about the work.

If, however, the company is funding the research because they hope that the outcome will be useful for the company’s own research (a more likely case), then company researchers may want to meet with the university researchers at various points to discuss protocols, time-lines, preliminary results, etc. The company is paying for the research, so of course they are eager to know the details about the work and the results. This can be annoying to the university researcher in part because industry and academia operate on different time scales. What appears to the company to be infrequent requests for updates will appear to the university researcher to be constant hounding.

2. What are the expectations and deliverables?
This relates to the previous question, but is more specific. What does the sponsoring company expect in the way of updates? Do they expect to be able to send their scientists to the university lab every month to talk about the project, or are quarterly updates by e-mail sufficient? Do they expect a written report at the end of the project with all of the data, or do they want all of the software code and detailed protocols so that they can replicate the results at the company labs? Discussing this up front will avoid frustrations later on.

3. What are both sides’ rights to publish and present?
Companies survive because they obtain advantages over their competition. Many of their advantages are proprietary and companies protect those advantages by either patenting them or keeping them secret. Unless the company is only looking for good PR from the project (see point #1), the business executives in a company would rather keep secret any useful results from the sponsored project for as long as possible.

This, of course, conflicts with the university researcher’s goal of publishing and presenting the research that they conduct. This ability is fundamental to the researcher’s job and should be undeniable by the company. The happy medium is to allow the company to file for patent protection on any inventions that arise from the project before the invention is made public in a presentation or submitted manuscript. This is typically achieved by providing the sponsoring company with copies of what will be presented or submitted for publication at least one month in advance to allow the company to review what will be publicly disclosed and to file a patent application if necessary.

On the other side, the company may want to publish and present the results of the research at meetings that are important to their business. They may or may not want the university researcher to participate in these presentations. Again, expectations should be discussed so that both sides are aware of each other’s goals.

4. Is the sponsor agreeable to the university’s Intellectual Property policy?
There is the possibility that a patentable invention will result from the sponsored research. These days, every American university has formalized their own policy on ownership rights of any inventions, with details on what the rights of the sponsoring company are to the invention. Areas include rights to use, produce and commercialize, exclusive and non-exclusive. Also to be considered are rights when the only inventors are university employees or when there is shared inventorship between university employees and company employees. Be aware of the policy and make sure everyone is comfortable with it before beginning work.

Often, companies only sponsor research that they believe will not produce any inventions in order to avoid any costly licensing fees. Corporate executives will also often bristle at University IP policies. I’ve known some companies that have pulled the plug on sponsored research after significant work had been done to set up the project because corporate lawyers did not like the IP policy, and other companies that have selected which university to work with largely based on which university had the loosest IP policy.

In my opinion, these are over-reactions. Companies incorrectly think that universities will be as cut-throat in negotiations as their competitors, and that the university will become a threat to the sponsoring company if all the IP isn’t tied up with the sponsoring company from the start. Universities are in the business of teaching and training students and conducting reputable research, not generating massive revenue from licensing technology. Yes, they do want a return from their employees inventions, but no, they are not going to pursue monetization of the invention in the same way that IBM or Intellectual Ventures would.

5. Will the research be conducted by the professor, a post-doc, or graduate student?
Research at university labs is usually not conducted by the professor who directs the lab but by students working with the professor. The students are there to learn and be trained.

Whereas industry researchers have significant experience and are efficient in making decisions and finding the right approach, student researchers will spend a certain amount of time exploring new ideas and learning new concepts. They will take considerably longer than a dedicated industry researcher because they are learning and being trained. If the professor will actively participate in the project, however, then progress will likely be faster.

Post-docs will also work faster because they have more experience. Presumably, the post-doc is not as focused on learning as a graduate student is and they are focused more on progress and producing publications. So, the sponsoring company should know who will be doing the primary research so that they will understand the speed with which it will progress and set their expectations accordingly.

6. Is the university researcher a collaborator or contractor?
Is the expectation by the sponsoring company that they are simply writing a check and that all work will be done by the university researcher, or does the sponsoring company want to be an active participate? If they want to participate, then at what level: helping to develop protocols, replicating research in their labs, providing equipment, data interpretation?

The approach that I try to take at my research center is to be a collaborator with the university researcher. For me, this ensures that the research has the greatest likelihood of being useful for my company’s needs, and eases the transfer of technology from the university lab to my lab. In the absence of participation, the likelihood exists that any results from the university lab will just sit on a shelf, waiting for someone to read the report.

7. Are there opportunities to enhance the funding?
Sometimes there are programs available that add funding dollars to sponsored projects. The University of California has a mechanism called the UC Discovery Grant that doubles sponsorship funding through a grant submission process: if approved, the state of California matches the funds of the sponsoring company. Money is always tight, and it’s worth investigating whether the university or state has funding mechanisms that can be used to enhance the sponsor’s funds.

Hobson, Alert the Media!

I was watching Tivo on my Sony TV tonight while browsing the TechCrunch and The Loose Wire blogs on my Dell D600 laptop when what I read almost made me gag on my deliciously chewy Snickers bar. Apparently, some bloggers are being paid to promote products in their posts! I chugged a hit of pure energy from my refreshing Red Bull and read on.

PayPerPost.com is linking advertisers to bloggers with Maxim-like lubriciousness. Bloggers can find advertisers on the PayPerPost site who are offering to pay bloggers if they link to a site or review a product, and are sometimes only offering to pay if the blogger’s product review is positive. Thinking that I could learn more, I clicked on a graphic that declared “Easiest. Money. Ever.” on the TechCrunch site, but it only took me to a website trying to sell advertisements to bloggers.

I paused my Tivo, just when I was about to find out which team on The Apprentice was going to win the contest to create the best XBox 360 display at a Wal-Mart store, so that I could focus more on the story that laid beside the Intel Xeon Inside ad. I was shocked, shocked to find out that any of the 40 million bloggers out there would modify their content for money.

Seriously, buyer beware. This isn’t a case of “you get what you pay for,” because many of the free blogs that I read are of excellent quality and present trustworthy opinions. Still, don’t be naive, read with a critical eye. Would you be surprised to find out that people blog to promote their agenda, their book, their company, their friend’s company?

By the way, what are people being paid to blog about by these shameless capitalists? Looking at the PayPerPost list of opportunities, it looks like I could get $5 to post 50 words about public transportation, $5 to post 20 words about the TV show Hell’s Kitchen (which is god-awful…does this mention qualify me for the money?), and $10 to post 20 words about the May 20 release of the Spider Man 3 movie (damn, three words short…wait, now I’m over the twenty word requirement!).