October 7, 2015

Penn IUR Roundtable on Anchor Institutions: University-led Innovation Initiatives

past event


Penn IUR and the Penn Center for Innovation (PCI) hosted a public conversation entitled “Penn IUR Roundtable on Anchor Institutions: University-Led Innovation Initiatives,” which convened leaders from some of the nation’s most engaged urban universities to discuss how their institutions are fostering innovation and commercialization in new ways. Speakers included Todd Sherer, Associate Vice President for Research and Executive Director of Technology, Emory University; Jim Kiriakis, Interim Director, UCSF Innovation, Technology & Alliances, University of California, San Francisco; Alan Thomas, Associate Vice President and Director, Center for Technology Development and Ventures, University of Chicago; John Swartley, Associate Vice Provost for Research and Executive Director, Penn Center for Innovation, University of Pennsylvania; and Jon Soderstrom, Managing Director, Office of Cooperative Research, Yale University. Panelists discussed innovation initiatives such as corporate alliances, new venture practices and programs, seed fund programs, and virtual and on-site incubators. Funding from Penn IUR Board Member Lawrence C. Nussdorf supported the effort.


Penn IUR Co-Director Eugénie Birch moderated the panel, opening with a discussion of the role of anchor institutions (entities that are geographically rooted and offer the jobs, services, entertainment options, and other amenities that help sustain urban productivity and quality of life) in cities and regions. She explaining that “eds and meds”—some of the more widely recognized anchor institutions—are not only invested in their neighborhoods and cities through their ownership of real estate, attraction of students and staff, and pursuit of their respective missions, but also are the sources of breakthrough ideas, new technologies, and entrepreneurial activities that contribute significantly to regional economies. These innovative ideas, technologies, and activities are generated through research—which, historically, has been funded in large part through federal research dollars. However, levels of federal research funding have, in recent years, stagnated or declined.  In part for this reason, universities’ have undertaken strategic initiatives to find new sources of funding by partnering with the private sector, commercializing innovations, and fostering business development.

For an hour and a half, the panelists discussed their experiences in terms of the institutional and metropolitan environments in which they work. UCSF’s Kiriakis described the variety of industry partners with which UCSF is engaged, a result of the highly dynamic and innovative culture within UCSF and throughout the San Francisco Bay area. Thomas explained that, in contrast, the University of Chicago has an entrenched academic culture (as opposed to one dedicated to applied research) and a sprawling metropolitan environment, both of which are challenges. Emory’s Sherer noted that sprawl is a challenge in Atlanta as well, one that makes it difficult to create the industry clusters and collaboration essential to innovation. Emory does have institutional support for commercialization, however; Sherer explained that support arrived virtually overnight when the sale of two HIV drugs brought the university hundreds of millions of dollars, proving the enormous potential of innovation. Similarly, Swartley described the evolution of Penn’s culture toward one supportive of innovation, noting that support from Penn’s leadership was a key part of this transformation. He described the most visible illustration of the institution’s support of innovation: Pennovation Works, a 23-acre site adjacent to Penn’s campus that will house researchers, entrepreneurs, and industry partners and that is expected to open in 2016. Soderstrom agreed that spaces like Pennovation Works—i.e. incubator and co-working spaces—are essential, noting that, at Yale, such spaces are more successful the closer they are to the center of campus. In any case, Yale has had an enormous impact on its metropolitan environment over the past two decades, generating businesses and attracting millennial entrepreneurs who support a dense, walkable, amenity-filled urban landscape.

This event constituted the public portion of the sixth Penn IUR Roundtable on Anchor Institutions (PRAI). PRAI is a leadership “think tank” that convenes leaders from anchor institutions for intense roundtable discussions, allowing participants to engage with peers, strategize solutions, compare notes from the field, and generate national knowledge that can be applied in a local context.

Penn IUR Roundtable on Anchor Institutions: University-Led Innovation Initatives



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