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Monday, September 28, 2015

Is there a ‘special sauce’ for university innovation?

"Cornell University is partnering with the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology on its new technology-oriented Cornell Tech campus in New York City." summarizes Philip G Altbach, research professor and founding director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, USA and Jamil Salmi, he was the coordinator of the World Bank’s tertiary education programmes and he is currently a global tertiary education expert and emeritus professor at Diego Portales University in Chile.

According to a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the reason is largely because Cornell wants to take advantage of Technion’s innovative and entrepreneurial ethos and not any particular organisational innovation at the Technion, which is similar to many top-ranked research and innovation focused universities worldwide. 

Photo: University World News

According to the Technion professor leading the New York venture, the institution’s focus is less on creating “spin-out companies" and more on developing “spin-out people”. While the Technion has been highly successful in producing innovative graduates in Israel – 42% of its graduates set up their own company – it is not certain this will be duplicated in New York.

Rarely does academic culture or particular kinds of innovations transfer easily from one institutional culture to another.

Lessons from MIT or elsewhere?
The example of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT, might be illustrative. Without question, MIT produces some of the brightest and most innovative graduates in the world. Further, the university seems to have a unique culture that spawns an entrepreneurial spirit and new ideas. MIT hires some of the smartest and most innovative professors from around the globe and works to ensure that they will fit the institute’s ethos as well.

It provides an environment that facilitates the process of translating ideas developed on campus into products and innovations with useful application in the 'real world'. Additionally, the institution offers support for faculty and students who want to operationalise their ideas.

For these and other reasons, MIT has been asked to help universities in other countries to develop 'mini-MITs' – providing the ‘special sauce’ that will turn a highly resourced institution into an innovative and entrepreneurial world-class one. MIT has engaged in a range of collaborative programmes, in some cases helping to establishing new universities, and in others providing significant input to improve existing ones.

Institutions MIT has helped create include the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Moscow, the Masdar Institute in Abu Dhabi and the Singapore University of Technology and Design. The MIT Portugal project helped build scientific and technological systems, and the Cambridge-MIT Institute has for several decades collaborated with Cambridge University in the UK on a variety of programmes.

While full-scale analyses of these programmes have not been published, it is probably fair to say that all of them have faced challenges and none has in significant ways achieved that ‘special sauce’ – the top secret recipe – that makes MIT so outstanding.

All of these initiatives have been lavishly funded by the partner institutions themselves or deep-pocketed benefactors, resulting in considerable income for MIT. All show the difficulty of transferring an academic culture from one institution to another, something that is even more complicated in a different national context.

MIT and the Technion are not the only prototypes available to the planners at Cornell Tech. It is also possible to look at other highly successful university models directed at generating innovation. Stanford University has been tremendously successful in spawning start-up companies and graduating individuals who have made impressive contributions to IT and related industries in Silicon Valley, where it is located.

ETH Zurich is also well known for its excellence in technological education as well as its links and contributions to industry and technology. Both are quite different from MIT. While the number of universities that combine outstanding quality with contributions to industry is fairly small, there are many examples of different models that work.
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Source: University World News