Column by Brian Kraft, Innovation and Research Engagement Office

Kraft

As a land grant university, Washington State University’s mission is to advance knowledge through creativity and innovation and then apply this knowledge to real-world challenges. To do this, the university must bridge the gap between academia and industry, using external partnerships to translate its research into practical, science-based solutions.

However, since 2002, the amount of interactions between WSU research and industry has been on the decline. An external review conducted in 2016 found that this decrease was due to a number of reasons, one of which included the culture on campus, which could be improved to encourage industry partnerships and engagement amongst faculty.

In order to change the pattern and increase industry engagement, the Office of Research created the WSU Innovation and Research Engagement Office (IREO).

Founded in November 2017, IREO actively works to encourage industry engagement within the WSU community through new programs and initiatives to create pathways for colleges and departments to partner with industry. IREO also works side-by-side with WSU colleagues to highlight specific expertise within campuses, colleges and units and link directly to areas of interest for industry partners. The office also strives to provide administrative support for faculty and external partners working to establish new research partnerships.

Expanding research funding

To be recognized as one of the nation’s top 25 public research institutions by 2030, WSU must first secure more resources to support our growing research capabilities. In 2015, WSU’s research expenditures were $333 million. To meet the goals of the Drive to 25 initiative, WSU will need to increase research expenditures to $516 million, an increase of almost 50 percent.

When one assesses WSU’s total research expenditures, almost 40 percent came from federal funding sources. While the expectation is that federal funding will remain the dominant source of research funding, the increasing competition for this relatively static resource warrants an institutional focus on alternative sources of funding to fuel growth. To reach our goal of 50 percent growth, we will need to find other funding avenues. Public-private and public-public partnerships with external organizations is a good alternative.

By building and rewarding a culture that encourages external engagement and collaboration activities, IREO supports WSU’s Drive to 25 goals and metrics and can help WSU achieve 50 percent growth in research expenditures.

Changing the Culture

One of the obstacles that can prevent WSU researchers from pursuing external partnerships is simply time. In addition to conducting research, faculty members are asked to teach and serve the WSU community through committees and other administrative tasks and duties. They often find it challenging to justify spending what little time they have left actively seeking out external partnerships.

That’s where programs like the Entrepreneurial Faculty Ambassadors (EFA) come in.

The EFA was created by the Office of Research in 2016 to foster entrepreneurial activities at WSU. In 2017, when IREO was founded and began overseeing EFA, it was tasked with seeking and coordinating recommendations by faculty members for programs that would encourage engagement and entrepreneurship. During its review, it became apparent that the key was positioning entrepreneurial activities as a tool to enhance teaching and research rather than a separate, time-consuming activity.

While it’s easy to think of entrepreneurial activities as those that encourage the startup of companies, it is much more than that.

Entrepreneurial activities support curiosity and openness to explore new ideas and approaches. By creating an entrepreneurial atmosphere, it allows for new networks and connections to be built across traditional boundaries. It also helps to encourage specific kinds of activities and interests while connecting resources that leverage curiosity and create value for WSU and its constituents, whether that be industry partners or community members.

Using the EFA’s recommendations, IREO is working to build programs that will incentivize entrepreneurship for faculty by creating new faculty appointment structures, developing systems to validate faculty efforts, streamline contracting protocols and more. In turn, these programs will promote entrepreneurial activities and help build connectivity of like-minded individuals and programs across the WSU system, as well as advocating for policies and practices that support and enable an entrepreneurial cultural.

Supporting emerging relationships

Encouraging a faculty member to seek out these opportunities is the first step. Next, we must ensure that faculty have the resources that support successful external relationships. In addition, IREO is creating and facilitating entrepreneurial-styled training programs for researchers, like the WSU Innovation Corps (iCorps) program.

The National Science Foundation founded the national iCorps program in 2011 to help move academic research to the marketplace and, in 2016, WSU received a three-year grant to become one of the 51 universities that are part of the iCorps network.

Now halfway through their three-year grant, the WSU iCorps program, first started by Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture with the help of Carson College of Business and now led by the Office of Research, has trained more than 150 individuals across 27 departments. Since its launch, WSU iCorps has advised 14 startup companies, facilitated more than 20 intellectual property licenses and prototyping grants for WSU researchers, and secured $1.7 million in research funding and awards.

The final step in supporting these emerging relationships is simplifying the contracting process. Right now, there are only two contracting options, which involve either an incredibly complicated contract with a high overhead cost or an incredibly limited agreement that can only work if there is existing infrastructure.

Contracting is not a one-size-fits-all situation. These options work for some, but not all industry partnerships and the ones that do not fit are stifled.

With the creation of IREO, the number of contracting options has increased, allowing faculty and their external partners to pick the option best suited to their goals. Visit the Office of Research website to learn more about these options and learn how IREO is streamlining external contracts.

Leading the way to innovation

In November 2017, I was appointed as the Assistant Vice President for IREO. I believe changing the culture starts with creating a service-focused approach that builds the internal and external infrastructure needed for successful partnering. My team is dedicated to growing non-federally funded research in ways that serve the public good. Success in our mission results in growth of the WSU research portfolio and the embrace of a next-generation land grant approach to bringing new ideas to the world

My team and I will collaboratively work across disciplines, colleges, and campuses to grow opportunities for faculty to share new thoughts and ideas, and find external resources willing to invest in those ideas. As we continue to grow our research portfolio, it is critical that the University attracts and retains the best talent. External engagement with industry partners allows us to do just that, while also providing the ability for the University to strategically allocate the resources we have in order to grow.

For more information, please contact Brian Kraft, assistant vice president, Innovation and Research Engagement Office, 509-335-3959, bkraft@wsu.edu.