I read with great interest that Uber had raided Carnegie Mellon University’s robotics startup labs. What startled me, though, was that they weren’t able to retain the talent even though they knew they were looking and planned to exit. CMU is arguably one of the world’s most innovative universities. Why couldn’t they create a business model that allowed the group what they wanted (access to the riches of robotics startups, the ability to do the next big thing, and perhaps more autonomy) while retaining the talent for their research labs and to teach, train, and mentor students, to enrich the university and contribute to basic and applied research?
That’s what I think is missing in academic intrapreneurship – the ability to create new business models that go beyond spinning out IP or doing research for hire or that get categorized into that third mission of service or engagement. The New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/13/magazine/uber-would-like-to-buy-your-robotics-department.html) reported this, the most interesting part to me:
Back at the lab, in fact, a group was already preparing to break away. One of Uber’s recent hires from the National Robotics Engineering Center told me that he and his 20-person team had long found their lab work rewarding, but that they had been stunned by the rush of money into robotics in recent years: Google bought Nest, the Internet-connected thermostat firm, for $3.2 billion; Makerbot, a start-up that creates inexpensive 3-D printers, was acquired by another company for $604 million. ‘‘We were just flabbergasted,’’ he says, adding that his team could have invented those products ‘‘in two weeks.’’
‘‘I have this big, well-tuned machine of a team, standing there looking at me saying, ‘Hey, man, when the hell are we going to do something big?’ ’’ he says. His response was: ‘‘I’m an entrepreneur at heart. Let’s do it.’’ He visited venture capitalists in Silicon Valley and lined up tens of millions of dollars to fund a robotics start-up. By summer 2014, he informed the National Robotics Engineering Center that he and his team meant to exit on Jan. 1 this year.
CMU knew months ahead that they planned to exit (though not that Uber was a possibility). And yet, there was apparently no viable model to tap into? Why not? Whether their team would have invented those in two weeks or not is entirely a separate question, and one based on, I think, the lack of relevant models to incent that invention. They couldn’t invent those products as part of their labs and benefit from them in the context of their university employment, without spinning out companies that would take their time and attention away from their academic work and research. Again, why not?
And I’m not just talking about commercialization and licensing IP for some returns, but rather the opportunity to build a successful business within the university framework that taps into many departments – perhaps marketing and PR, business and entrepreneurship, industrial design, and others. Ways to build businesses with students, staff, and other faculty, and to realize the full potential of later acquisitions and flow of funding into the university to benefit the inventors, the university and all their stakeholders – imagine if students, faculty, and staff were regularly engaged in business startups as part of their roles what they could do for education and even basic research support!
Then the researchers could also talk about their research, publish it, know that it plays a role in the next big thing! Because now, they’re locked into what Uber wants, they can’t publish, tap into colleagues, or engage in work outside of their company’s interests. The university lost the researchers (reputation enhancement as being a place to poach from aside, this has to be bad for CMU!), and their students, from undergrad through PhD and postdocs lose the ability to learn in an open academic environment that encourages basic science, enhances curiosity, and encourages discovery.
I think there is room for innovation in this area. To build on the entrepreneurship work of universities as a whole. To create new models and build opportunities other than what we saw here – economic incentives sufficient to draw talented researchers and teachers to their company and away from academia.