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June 21, 2012 Volume 33, No. 33

University research leader encourages fearlessness at roundtable

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INNOVATION AND COMMERCE Rob Duncan, left, MU vice chancellor for research, and Tom Skalak, vice president for research at the University of Virginia, spoke at the Hampton Inn & Suites June 5 about the role of research universities in business creation. Rob Hill photo


More private companies seeking university innovation, speaker says

Audience members got a pep talk June 5 on how to turn university research into commercial products that bolster the mid-Missouri economy.

Rob Duncan, MU vice chancellor for research, and Tom Skalak, vice president for research at the University of Virginia, spoke at the Hampton Inn & Suites about the mindset needed to grow innovation that starts successful companies in the private sector. 

“We want to translate what we do in research to improve our economic position,” Duncan told about 100 campus and local financial leaders. “Those who can rapidly and efficiently commercialize major new discoveries will win.”

Skalak said that private companies, because of their diminished research-and-development resources, are turning today to universities for innovation. 

“No Fortune 500 company has such a breadth of knowledge as universities,” Skalak said. “Seventy percent of innovation is coming from public organizations.”

The event, “Building a Knowledge-Based Economy: Global Competitiveness through Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Public-Private Partnerships,” was part of the Mizzou Corporate Roundtable series. It came midway in Skalak’s two-day “Knowledge-Based Economy Tour” that began in St. Louis and ended in Kansas City. Skalak is credited for helping bring more than $40 million in research grants to the University of Virginia.

Skalak acknowledged MU’s success as a research institution. In fiscal 2010, for example, the university brought in $425 million in external funding through sponsored research, contracts and diverse services. From 2007 to 2010, MU’s transfer office doubled its patent production. The MU Research Reactor Center is No. 1 in America in shipping radioisotopes for health care applications, Duncan said.

But things could be better. Skalak said it comes down to a slight attitude adjustment. In a phrase: Be fearless.

He said successful research universities are willing to push research boundaries while also being unafraid to pull the plug on hapless projects.

At times Skalak sounded like a motivation speaker. “Be a bulwark against one size fits all.” “Be unique and in tune locally.” “We’re in the inventing-the-future business. That’s what universities do.”

Skalak closed by encouraging researchers not to lose their creative spark when it comes to innovation.

“Every child is an artist,” Skalak said, quoting Picasso. “The problem is how to remain an artist when one grows up.”