Growing more STEM businesses and entrepreneurs in NC

GREENSBORO – It’s no secret that North Carolina’s public and private higher educational institutions have earned global prominence in their ability to successfully educate scientists, engineers and technologists. Every year significant numbers of our graduates are recruited by local and global corporations that have learned to value the scientific and technical capabilities of students and graduates of our great higher educational institutions. The looming question, however, is “How can we grow more of our own North Carolina STEM-based companies?”

As tomorrow’s global citizens enter higher education with words like “make,” “hack,” and “prototype” embedded in their vocabulary, they are fueling a powerful movement toward “learning by creating.”

Joe Magno
Faced with the shifting ambitions of students and changes in institutional funding streams, colleges and universities are embracing “learning by creating,” allowing them to leverage the traditional spirit of an educational community with their students’ growing entrepreneurial interests.

Responding to this trend, many institutions are adopting powerful new models to attract new entrepreneurially focused students and evolving from historically siloed disciplinary thinking and empowering new levels of discovery and attempting to build more vibrant regional economies.

These newly formed, university-based “innovation + incubator + maker centers” focus on multi-disciplinary inquiry that fosters partnerships with industry and leverages available grants and funding for research. By advancing these concepts universities are hoping to recruit fresh talent, establish new partnerships for success, and promote an environment where students, researchers and partners can work toward solving the complex challenges of today’s global economy while supporting the primary educational mission.

That said, introducing the words “Innovation Center” and developing one are two very different things, and different models are evolving based upon an institution’s existing strengths and relationships.

At this point, three specific types of innovation centers are evolving, and academic leaders must make key strategic decisions to ensure they select a relevant and powerful model that can succeed for their own institution. Understanding each model is critical as a university considers which model is right for their institution.

Here’s a look at each model:

  • The Multi-Disciplinary Learning Model

Many academic institutions are crossing traditional academic lines to create and promote what is referred to as “Multi-Disciplinary Innovation Center Solutions”. This model drives cross-pollination and brings together diverse fields to expand potential for developing unique and cross pollinated practical new products and accelerate discovery through problem-based, multi-disciplinary structures designed to address 21st-century challenges.

  • Industry Supported Innovation Centers

In this model the university leverages partnerships with private industry allowing industry partners, researchers, and students to work together in a structured and agreed to manner. It provides participating companies not only an opportunity to develop new products and services, but also an opportunity to “scout” for new talent prepared and accustomed to a corporate culture. It concurrently provides university students and researchers an opportunity to solve real world problems and leverage their ability to cast “fresh eyes” on real world challenges faced by participating companies, not to mention engender financial support.

  • Entrepreneurship Focused Innovation Centers

In this model the university provides students both facilities, including traditional incubators, and specific curricula to provide students the tools that might help them to launch new companies and work more effectively in entrepreneurial settings.

These models are all intended to break down traditional academic silos and foster interaction and innovation. Traditional Business Schools are fostering what is referred to as “design thinking”. Engineering schools are discovering the humanities, and collaborative engagements across department borders are being encouraged and in fact, rewarded.  Words such as Innovation, Incubation, Entrepreneurship and Partnerships regardless of the model are truly part of the new academic vernacular.

As North Carolina continues to grow, our economy and organizations across the state need to invest resources in this worthwhile endeavor. It may be time to modify our words and our dialogue to better describe how the methodology for growing companies in the 21st century is evolving.

Note this quote:

“The key to our success…will be to compete by developing new products, by generating new industries, by maintaining our role as the world’s engine of scientific discovery and technological innovation. It’s absolutely essential to our future.”

– President Barack Obama, November 17, 2010

Undoubtedly these approaches will need some time to mature … MIT and Stanford are examples of the time such things need. It’s time to renew our support for our great North Carolina institutions.