On Innovation, Ecosystems, and Impact… Oh My


On Innovation, Ecosystems, and Impact… Oh My

December 14, 2015

Walking around a major research university such as the University of Arizona, you will often hear and see the word “innovative” used to describe a diverse range of activities, from the development of collaborative learning spaces that benefit student engagement experiences to the creation of cutting edge technologies. The idea of innovation is one way to understand evolution of public research universities as they transition from a role focused on providing points of access to knowledge to one that emphasizes acting as social, economic, and cultural agents that both create and apply knowledge with and in their communities.

In Tucson, we have seen this kind of impact in the success of UA startup SinfoníaRx, which I wrote about as an example of the University’s commitment to an inclusive view of scholarship in an earlier blog post, and there is potential for similar impact in other ongoing projects at the UA. For instance, Regents’ Professor Roger Angel, who was recently inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame, is the driving force behind the success of the UA’s Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab, and he is probably best known for the enormous mirrors that the Caris Mirror Lab produces for the world’s most advanced telescopes. However, he is also the founder of REhnu, a startup company that uses his insights into mirrors in a novel way to create a unique mirror module that maximizes the capture of light and heat. The design of REhnu’s solar modules has important advantages over traditional solar panels, including increased electricity generated and increased efficiency in energy capture, which are, in part, outcomes of Dr. Angel’s long experience working with mirrors in the Caris Mirror Lab. With the increasing need for affordable alternative sources of energy, and Arizona’s unique climate, REhnu is perfectly suited to impact the UA’s home community in a positive way. 

Recognizing how these discoveries lead to impact in our daily lives is important, and in many cases by the time a discovery leads to a specific product, process, or company, that impact is obvious. However, in addition to illustrating the importance of foundational knowledge and research for technological application, the examples of UA innovations I have mentioned should also remind us of the role of serendipity in creating impact from university research in all disciplines. By definition, potential discoveries and innovations are much harder to spot, but creating the conditions for their emergence is a key component of what a university like the UA strives for in its research enterprise. In this blog post I will discuss this issue, particularly how we can better understand the development of innovation as process, where innovations come from, and how to sustain an environment in which they can thrive.

From Pipeline to Ecosystem: Rethinking Collaboration, Partnership, and Translation 

The metaphor of an innovation pipeline is often used to describe the relationship between basic research and a commercializable technology, as discoveries in basic science often eventually lead to new products and services. In this model, keeping basic research going is crucial because in the long term it enables these outcomes that directly impact our lives. While this approach can be helpful in thinking about the need for continual investment in research, it leaves out some important components of the discovery-application relationship, and it tends to ignore the importance of research and scholarship in the humanities, arts, and other non-STEM fields. First, the “pipeline” presupposes a straightforward, linear approach to results, but we know that basic research often involves dead ends and setbacks, precluding any easy route from problem A to solution B, not to mention the often times circuitous route of translating solutions into real world applications. In fact, highly useful innovations are unanticipated byproducts of research, an example being a recently patented underwater adhesive that was discovered during the course of researching the Dengue virus in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

Instead, scientists, artists, scholars, and other members of the University research community follow threads of inquiry and exploration while remaining open to new developments and possibilities, which often leads to serendipitous findings, conclusions, and moments of inspired insight.

A more helpful metaphor, then, is the innovation ecosystem, where many parts of a university work together to create a culture of innovation that leads to many diverse outcomes. A few key characteristics:

  • Developing an ecosystem depends upon and encourages community and business partnerships.
  • The ecosystem model enables team science, team scholarship, artistic collaboration, and the transdisciplinary mingling of fields from linguistics and literature to optics and oncology.
  • It assumes that the university does not comprise the ecosystem on its own, but serves as part of a broader network of innovation that includes local, statewide, and global businesses, community partners, and others who complement university expertise and expand its reach, with each part interdependent upon the others for success.
  • Faculty and staff doing research learn from students and vice versa, so that research and innovation are grassroots in nature and ideas are evaluated on their merits.

All of these characteristics help to create and sustain a culture of innovation that marries basic research to its translation in the public sphere. The UA’s goal is to expand the innovation ecosystem at the University and in the community so that the culture of innovation is strengthened and continues to create positive impact in the world.

Common Challenges

The benefits of this model are evident in some of the celebrated successes of several regions and universities in the past few decades. Places like Silicon Valley and the universities of the Bay Area, Boulder and the University of Colorado, Austin and the University of Texas, and North Carolina’s Research Triangle with Duke, North Carolina State, and UNC-Chapel Hill are all examples of the mutual benefit that can emerge when a university enables a culture of innovation. While it is not enough simply to replicate the structures and processes that have allowed for unprecedented creativity and growth in these three regions, there are some common challenges we share with all research universities that we can anticipate and work to address:

  • Cost: Large scale research is expensive, particularly when studies are longitudinal in nature or when they involve many participants and areas of expertise. Coupled with less available federal and state funding for research, projects that take risks to innovate new ways of thinking and doing things are more difficult to develop and sustain. As an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education pointed out recently, emphasis on productivity and the relative dearth of available research funding can combine to discourage truly innovative projects, with many researchers pursuing more incremental and less creative work because it is frequently easier to secure funding, initiate the project, and demonstrate a specific outcome and means of applying it. 
  • Silos: Academic fields tend to be grounded in technical and other kind of very precise expertise. In many ways, this specialization is a good thing. The need for risk-taking notwithstanding, much of the actual work of scientific and scholarly research is to pursue the many related but distinct lines of inquiry that are opened by transformative, paradigm-shifting insights. Each line is potentially a door to ever more specialized knowledge, which can breed distinct research projects that do not necessarily coincide or exchange information. Yet, because innovations are very often the product of exhausting a set of questions and addressing the resulting new ones that stretch across diverse areas of expertise, breaking out of these silos—whether at the level of the individual researcher or at that of the department and discipline—is vital. Because the ecosystem model enables interconnected but distinct lines of inquiry, what might be a ‘failure’ in a pipeline is instead a door to a new line of inquiry and new possibilities for addressing a particular challenge or for taking on new ones. 
  • Safety and compliance: In many fields, especially biosciences and health sciences, research involves the study of human subjects: their health, their behavior, their thoughts and beliefs. Other areas of research can involve large scale construction (like the Giant Magellan Telescope) or the use of potentially dangerous materials. These elements of modern research require a robust network of regulations to ensure the safety of subjects and researchers alike, which requires an equally robust compliance architecture that involves departmental and institutional levels of checks and balances.

Shared Solutions Leading to Distinct Outcomes 

Addressing the challenges in building a culture of innovation requires a proactive approach to collaborating, partnering, and using shared infrastructure and resources in effective and creative ways that drive success. There are many strategies, and key among them is the need to coordinate research resources for maximum creativity and effectiveness across a university. The UA’s Office of Research and Development, along with other units, is spearheading important efforts here at the UA. I’ll share a few:

  • Encourage an integrative approach to research: Research centers that actively encourage faculty collaboration across colleges and disciplines are an important tool. For example, the Defense and Security Research Institute (DSRI) at the UA helps faculty and researchers to pursue new avenues of funding in areas related to defense and security. The DSRI will build on the success of UA faculty like Dr. Erica Corral, who specializes in advanced composite material systems for use in extreme environments, with applications including thermal protection for a variety of components in next generation aerospace vehicles (including rockets). Another exciting example is the Confluence Center for Creative Inquiry, which helped coordinate the recently concluded Religion, Secularism, and Political Belonging (RelSec) program at the UA. Led by the English Department and in collaboration with the Institute for the Study of Religion and the Confluence Center, the program linked the UA and four partner institutions to address the intersections of religion, social practices, and forms of cultural organization in political arenas, civil society, and the public sphere. In both cases, bringing faculty together from multiple disciplines breaks down disciplinary silos and pools expertise to form novel perspectives on what are often otherwise intractable problems.
  • Value all elements of the innovation ecosystem in faculty evaluation: At the UA this meant the change in promotion and tenure policy that I mentioned in my December 2014 post. The new policy allows faculty to be rewarded based on work that they do in translational and other applied research as well as basic research, which is typically emphasized in faculty evaluation and rewards.
  • Engage a broader community beyond campus: At the UA this means helping Tucson, Southern Arizona, and the state be more innovation-oriented. For instance, Dennis Beal, Associate Vice President for Business Development in the Office of Research and Development (ORD), works to build connections between UA researchers and potential industry partners. Beal has years of experience managing complex research projects in the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of the Navy, and various other organizations, and at the UA he focuses on pairing subject-matter expertise from UA faculty and staff with industry partners who help provide the institutional capacity to manage large-scale research projects. Beal’s efforts complement the ongoing work of Tech Launch Arizona (TLA), which brings UA inventors together with business leaders and others who have vital experience in the process of moving a product from idea to marketable reality.
  • Show appreciation and support for innovation and innovators: This includes both faculty, students, and partners. TLA recognizes those whose work directly affects quality of life through research, collaboration and innovation via its annual I-Squared Awards, and the UA is working to create an institutional vehicle for honoring leaders in innovation, including an award that will have national impact and significance. The goals of this program will be to inspire the next generation of scientists, scholars, artists, and other creators, who are at the heart of any innovation ecosystem. For students specifically, this recognition can also take place within the university. For instance, at a faculty breakfast during the latest Arizona Board of Regents meeting, 18 students from many different majors gave wonderful two-minute presentations on ongoing research projects they are conducting as part of their education. Major areas of study included dance, neuroscience and cognitive science, management and information systems, and sociology.
  • Create shared central infrastructure and processes that support the work of faculty and other researchers: As at many universities, the UA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD) facilitates the work of researchers by centralizing support and core facilities. For instance, in support processes, Research Development Services helps to identify potential funding sources and create effective proposals; Contract and Research Support assists in the negotiation of award agreements, especially with regard to state law and policy; and a set of compliance and safety units focus on responsibilities around protecting human research subjects, humane treatment of laboratory animals, health information privacy projection, and radiation, biological, and chemical safety. In each case, a network of resources is woven throughout the UA community so that researchers can be effective and creative in their work.
  • Enable grassroots innovation from students: We must encourage student participation in the ecosystem through research programs and other engagement experiences where they have the opportunity to apply what they have learned in less formal settings than the classroom and lab, and then share those students’ stories with the campus community and other university stakeholders. Examples include Hack Arizona, a student-led weekend gathering of undergraduate and graduate students from across the Southwest and U.S. in which teams work to build technological projects from idea to functioning product in 36 hours; InnovateUA, a student-led innovation and entrepreneurship hub; the TLA Student Fellows program, whereby graduate students help research patent and market landscapes for newly disclosed UA inventions; the Chris and Carol McGuire Center for Entrepreneurship in the Eller College of Management, which serves undergraduate and graduate students from across campus; and formal innovation courses for students that are being developed by Joaquin Ruiz, the Dean of the College of Science and Vice President for Innovation at the UA.

Case in Point: The UA Health Sciences 

To close, I want to focus on the UA Health Sciences (UAHS) and how it exemplifies the strategies the UA is using to address challenges to innovation in crucial areas of research, teaching, and community engagement. 

As I wrote about in a post on Graduate Medical Education in 2013, health care education, research, and clinical care are particularly complex. That complexity appears notably in clinical trials, which involve regulations around human subject testing and often require a long-term project and a large scale in terms of the number of subjects or samples examined. For instance, for a new therapy, treatment regimen, medication, diagnostic product, or other product to be developed and approved for use, researchers have to work through up to six phases of study (including pre-clinical studies) that can take over a decade and cost a great deal. This complexity requires long term funding sustained across many different stages of a project for it to be successful. While many medications are developed by corporations that are able to recoup costs from the massive profits made from marketing new blockbuster drugs, others, while incredibly important, are not developed if they do not have a solid chance of profitability on a large scale. For instance, while Valley Fever is a serious and often debilitating disease, a potential cure has not completed clinical trials despite being initially discovered in the 1970s. This is because Valley Fever occurs only in certain regions of the country and world, and likely users of a new treatment are not numerous enough to make approval of the drug profitable for a pharmaceutical company. As I discussed in my March 2015 blog post, the UA’s Valley Fever Center for Excellence (VFCE) has partnered with the FDA, the NIH, the Critical Path Institute, and others to study this potential cure and conduct clinical trials.

This partnership and others like it are even more vital as biomedical research has grown more complex with advances in genomics and digital health technologies, which—because their translational applications often cannot be marketed as a drug, test kit, or other (relatively) simple product—defy many attempts to sustain ongoing research partnerships through patenting and licensing. Instead, they require multidisciplinary translational teams that emerge through proactive corporate engagement and an emphasis on transdisciplinary collaboration.

UAHS is emphasizing this partnership strategy through the Office of Biomedical Corporate Alliances (BCA), led by Executive Director Dr. Rick Silva, which was created to be an agent for translational collaborations with external industry. The BCA is pursuing a number of tactics, including national promotion of UA innovations as opportunities for research collaboration, support for collaborative grant proposals that make UA projects more globally competitive through complementary translational research expertise, and a unique online portal that will communicate about UA research capabilities, infrastructure, core facilities, and research excellence and make them discoverable by potential global partners. Another important component of the growing biosciences and health sciences ecosystem at the UA is the Arizona Center for Accelerated Biomedical Innovation (ACABI), led by Dr. Marvin Slepian, which brings together investigators to work together as they evaluate market need and match it with potential from new ideas in biomedical research. Both of these entities are directly linked to TLA to bring those innovations to the world through commercial pathways.

While these industry partnerships share many qualities with those that the UA has in other fields (indeed, the BCA works very closely with Tech Launch Arizona), it is absolutely critical to understand that in the health sciences they depend on broader partnership in the form of an academic health center (AHC) to be most effective. AHCs pair a teaching hospital with a medical college and affiliated professional schools in other areas of health care like nursing, public health, and pharmacy. The transdisciplinary collaboration, academic-clinical partnerships, and community engagement that the AHC model generates is an important source of creativity and resources for the kind of research that the BCA seeks to amplify. The importance of AHCs to the future of health care and health sciences research is why the UA formed its academic affiliation with Banner Health in early 2015, as a vital part of the University’s efforts to build on the historic excellence of the academic health center in Tucson and create one in Phoenix, which is the largest U.S. city without an AHC.  

One of the more important aspects of the academic health center model is funds flow, where income from the clinical enterprise of the hospital supports research and teaching by physician-scientists and their peers in other disciplines. The investment in the academic enterprise helps create increased research productivity and leverages external grant funding, which leads to improved local and national stature for the hospital and the academic medical center as a whole. This stature, in turn, enables increased patient referrals, helps improve the quality of clinical faculty (as recruitment becomes easier with a better reputation), which leads to greater success for the clinical enterprise (and therefore more income that can be fed back into the academic enterprise).

Another benefit of the AHC model (and of the UA’s partnership with Banner Health) is the ability to centralize resources for biomedical and health sciences research, particularly in projects with a large scope, either in the number of years or the number of subjects required for reliable findings. With the scale of Banner’s clinical enterprise, the UA now has the ability to draw on more data from more patients in areas like health disparities and precision health, which are both strategically targeted areas of research as I mentioned above. Complementing this aggregation in clinical data warehouses are biobanks, which store samples for future research. Both data warehouses and biobanks are important resources for researchers to access as they address new questions and new issues that arise with changes in population, environment, and other factors that influence human health. The investments that UAHS is making in this kind of infrastructure are possible because of the resources brought into the academic enterprise through the partnership with Banner Health and the funds flow model that it utilizes.

The model of dynamic partnership exemplified by UAHS is one that can sustain innovation within public research universities and the communities of which they are a part. For the University of Arizona and its peers to have a strong future as drivers of positive change in the world, the kind of integrated research I have described in this post will be even more important. Just as we place huge importance on the ability of students to apply what they learn in the classroom and laboratory in less formal settings, scholars and scientists have the best chance to make groundbreaking new discoveries and artists have the necessary support to create new forms of expression when they work alongside each other in an innovation ecosystem that transcends disciplines and integrates the university with its community. Because of this integration, these innovations then have the best chance of creating impact in the world.