Charles Wessner, The National Academies
Tim Persons, Government Accountability Office
Jerry S. H. Lee, Center for Strategic Scientific Initiatives,
National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health
Chad Mirkin, Northwestern University
Andy Ross, Office of the Governor
Dr. Lee began the roundtable with the topic of how to facilitate the transition of investigators from one agency or program to another. Within his own collaboration between cancer biologists and physical scientists, he said he had found some of the “handoffs” to be easy, as between the nanotechnology and physics program. “But what happens when you have to reach out to FDA and other places?” he asked. “There’s a lot of discussion about local-level handoffs, students transitioning from academia and perhaps free-form structures, and how to reconcile entrepreneurial and academic metrics when designing a tenure track.” He said that his agency was struggling to do as well with these issues as Northwestern and some other Illinois institutions.
Dr. Nagahara asked whether the “smooth handoff” to the two companies started by Dr. Mirkin—AuraSense and Nanosphere—was due to the presence of students in his lab who moved to the companies.
Dr. Mirkin agreed that the students are vital in the innovation process. “They do the experiments for the great discoveries that form the basis for the companies. At the same time,” he said, “I typically don’t mix students with companies. We in the university focus on solving fundamental problems; some
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144 BUILDING THE ILLINOIS INNOVATION ECONOMY Roundtable Best Practices, Lessons, and Opportunities Moderator: Charles Wessner, The National Academies Tim Persons, Government Accountability Office Jerry S. H. Lee, Center for Strategic Scientific Initiatives, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health Chad Mirkin, Northwestern University Andy Ross, Office of the Governor Dr. Lee began the roundtable with the topic of how to facilitate the transition of investigators from one agency or program to another. Within his own collaboration between cancer biologists and physical scientists, he said he had found some of the “handoffs” to be easy, as between the nanotechnology and physics program. “But what happens when you have to reach out to FDA and other places?” he asked. “There’s a lot of discussion about local-level handoffs, students transitioning from academia and perhaps free-form structures, and how to reconcile entrepreneurial and academic metrics when designing a tenure track.” He said that his agency was struggling to do as well with these issues as Northwestern and some other Illinois institutions. Dr. Nagahara asked whether the “smooth handoff” to the two companies started by Dr. Mirkin—AuraSense and Nanosphere—was due to the presence of students in his lab who moved to the companies. Dr. Mirkin agreed that the students are vital in the innovation process. “They do the experiments for the great discoveries that form the basis for the companies. At the same time,” he said, “I typically don’t mix students with companies. We in the university focus on solving fundamental problems; some
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PROCEEDINGS 145 of them pertain to what a company will need, but the mission of the company is different from the mission at Northwestern, and we need to keep them separate.” “That said, many people trained within the lab environment are naturals as employees of a company, while others will want to do something completely different. For those who choose a company, that’s ultimately a relationship they establish on their own. This has worked extremely well. We have had a remarkable ten years of productivity and inventions, and many of those inventions have led to important commercial products. The story is still being told. I wouldn’t describe any of these companies as incredible successes, or failures. We’re not going to know how far they will go for another decade. But it’s looking pretty good.” A participant remarked that the United States is having troubling attracting enough people to careers in science and technology. “If they could see this pathway we’re talking about,” he said, “where you go through college, come to graduate school, and then have a choice of the academic route or this other venture capital route, it could be a major draw for more students.” Dr. Persons said he favored the use of prizes as incentives to innovators. He referred to the success of the X-Prize, the DARPA Grand Challenge for driverless vehicles, and others. “The brilliance of most of these,” he said, “is the high return on investment they trigger, and the inspiration for young people who participate all over the world. When you have a clear vision, like President Kennedy wanting to send a person to the moon, there are all the derivative benefits of this dream of going to space and what it means to students from K-12 up.” Mr. Ross of the State of Illinois referred to Governor Quinn’s emphasis on STEM education, and the Illinois Pathway Initiative, a public-private partnership that strives to interest school children in S&T careers. He also emphasized that most such needs in Illinois were “on hold” until the state took strong measures to resolve its pension crisis. “Right now,” he said, “we have $83 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, and every day it grows larger.” Dr. Mirkin asserted that the current strategy for teaching secondary and tertiary science was poorly designed. In biology and chemistry, he said, students are not exposed to laboratory work—where the hands-on excitement begins— until the third or fourth year of college. “Up to that point, we tell them to read about it, and we’ll test you on it; then read some more we’ll test you on that. It’s like setting out the bases for a baseball game and saying, Okay, for the next nine years we’re going to study each of the positions. Once you’ve learned all those, we’ll play a game. How many people will be excited by baseball?” He acknowledged that exposing students to labs was a lot of work and responsibility. “But it changes their view of science and maybe their lives. We have to give some thought as to how do that earlier.” Dr. Persons made the parallel point about emphasizing the vision for STEM education. “Yes, we’re putting money into STEM ed. Will it go to internet access for classrooms? What is that for? Why is this important? We need to be saying, Here’s what you can do to help change the world.”
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146 BUILDING THE ILLINOIS INNOVATION ECONOMY Dr. Wessner suggested bringing “some local heroes” into the classroom. “When you talk to people in public service, or maybe an astronaut, they still remember the time a leader came to their classroom and talked about an interesting life.” Dr. Mirkin agreed, saying he had done this many times. “But there’s a flip side. You put on big shows for these kids, and they get excited. Then after it’s over you ask how many want to be a scientist, and not a single hand goes up. You ask why, and they say it’s too hard, it’s too much work. That’s the perception.” Michael Rosen, of the Illinois Science and Technology Park, spoke of a comprehensive effort to generate a more diverse S&E work force. “They don’t all have to be PhD scientists,” he said. “Our goal is to interest them in many different jobs of the future, such as nanotechnician. They can see there is employment in interesting work. We have been working with Oakton Community College, nine local high schools, the village of Skokie, the State of Illinois, the Illinois Science and Technology Coalition, and technicians from the company NanoInk to create a curriculum for high school students and community college students. Hopefully this will drive our training center at the Park and help us prepare people for jobs in what will be a growth industry for our state.” A graduate student spoke of his own efforts to interest high school students in STEM careers. ”I love doing outreach myself, and the kids love to talk about it. But as a grad student you get buried under the work load and have to publish papers; it’s hard to get out of the lab for a day, and have to explain to my boss that I’m going to do outreach that day. Grad students get paid for teaching; maybe part of their stipend should be for outreach to school kids.” Dr. Wessner noted that many U.S. trading partners were succeeding in building their innovation programs—“with a lot of help from government. In our country,” he said, “we resist.” He asked Mr. Ross if the governor’s office could do more. Mr. Ross said he totally agreed on the need to continue investing in infrastructure, both physical and human. He said that the governor, within his first 10 weeks in office, had shepherded through a capital program, some of which would go to universities. The state had also launched Advantage Illinois to spur small business growth. “We’re doing what we can,” he said. “At the same time, our needs are growing exponentially. We have to get our fiscal house in order, and then we can make the investments we need to help spark new companies.” He also noted the need to celebrate the achievements that have been made. Dr. Mirkin agreed that “we do the worst job in celebrating the successes that come out of this area, including the state level and the university level. Partly, it’s a mindset, from being in the Midwest. Here, Lyrica is the biggest deal, and no one knows about it. I’ve sat through so many PCAST meetings where people brag about the things MIT and Harvard have done. On
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PROCEEDINGS 147 the West Coast it’s the same. We don’t understand how important it is to communicate about achievements.” Dr. Wessner said that many countries found enormous advantages in communication and collaboration among the sectors: “They are setting up one- stop shops and are assigning special administrators from the government or universities to ease problems. So what they are doing is more than just easing taxes or other specific incentives—They are promoting ease of establishment for early-stage companies.“ Mr. Taylor, who had worked in many capacities for NASA, asked Mr. Persons whether GAO had all the tools it needs to address the growing need to translate science “faster, better, and cheaper.” Mr. Persons said that from a strategic—as opposed to an accounting—point of view, “there needs to be accountability at all levels, including the basic R&D. I think we have to get beyond the ‘I’m a smart person, just shut up and give me the money’ to better metrics to measure the effectiveness of R&D. The bottom line is that more work needs to be done.” Dr. Lee said that he had talked with GAO and shared some of his program’s best practices and lessons learned in an effort to improve R&D metrics. “We have different types of models we shared with Tim, unofficially as a scientist, asking him to look at what we are doing. We said, “this is what we are seeing, what do you think? Is it a reasonable model system to support different sectors of cancer research? We do want feedback on this.” Dr. Wessner said that he had been impressed by the diversity and quality of programs in Illinois, including the efforts to address the Valley of Death and to ease the translation of technologies toward the market place. He said he was also impressed by the small scale and relative newness of those efforts, and urged that more be done to set up a policy framework that encourages those programs. “We have been impressed by the strong leadership at the state level,” he said, and urged the legislature to bring in foundations as a major participant in building the Illinois innovation ecosystem. He concluded the region has an effective asset base, and has achieved the essential step of sharing facilities between large companies and small. He reaffirmed the call to subsidize the early activities of start-up firms, not in the form of tax relief, which does not benefits firms too small to earn profits, but in the form of grants and R&D credits. “Where will that come from,” he said, “I’m sure you wrestle with on daily basis. A larger argument is that we have to stop arguing with ourselves. It is other countries we’re competing with, and they are playing hard.” Dr. Mirkin closed the proceedings by thanking the Academies and the many local organizers for a successful conference.
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