Tuesday, June 16, 2009

What'll it take?

Yesterday, I had the pleasure to engage in a bit of extended parlay with Cory Mason, my WI State Representative, in the grocery store. I issued a "hello" and we talked for about a half hour about the state budget and related issues.

One thing that came of it was my suggestion that we should create a "brain draw" for the state, to attract more innovative researchers, to draw in more federal research dollars, create more jobs, and eventually lead to commercializing a new sort of economy for the state and beyond.
What sort of incentives could we offer? What's the State piece in this?, he asked.
Problem is, of course, the state has little money, cutting even K-12 education (though by a smaller percentage than other programs). I thought of my experience after filing my dissertation.

150 faculty job applications later, the best I had been offered was an adjunct position, at a private university that charged students $30k/year in tuition. I taught 80 students in two classes for a laughable $7700 per semester. After one term, I resigned. Or rather, I invited them to split my classes into two sections each and to hire me full-time, with benefits. They declined. So I walked away.

Now, less than two years later, I sit on top of a bootstrapped startup, with about $900,000 in federal R&D either received or expected over the next two years, doing what I love, working to solve real-world problems that have the potential to save money and save lives. More's the pity for the university's that undervalued my worth. But I can't be alone.

There must be thousands like me, thousands out there with PhDs, or simply with the innovative ideas but not the credential, who ought to be encouraged and supported in leading the charge to develop new technologies, new industries, new approaches.

To my mind, these individuals need only a few things:
  • Dignity & Respect: the worst thing about being an innovator is as Tachi Yamada is credited with saying "Innovation has no peers--by definition." For an outside thinker, being taken seriously is an invaluable contribution to their success.
  • Resources: An innovator, like the rest of us, needs a place to live and to work.
  • Income to sustain them along the way: Considering that so many highly-innovative, highly-motivated, highly-educated PhDs across this country work as adjunct professors for a pittance, or work outside of academia and research, shelving books or pumping coffee, my suspicion is that the income they require is not so much, as long as the first two of these are met.
So, the question is: What'll it take? I wonder if there aren't the resources available to rehab and open up some of the many vacant, foreclosed, or abandoned properties across the state as subsidized housing and office space to retain our homegrown talent, and draw in out-of-staters with ideas. And surely, this approach could be replicated in other states.

Why don't we create an open competition for ideas (a sort of State-run SBIR) that might garner support from federal or private sources? Why don't we invite the winners of that competition to live and work in space we provide or subsidize (subject to a contract that they remain in Wisconsin and start a business for a minimum of two or three years)? If they breach the contract, they must pay the state back at market rates. And why don't we create a small pool of capital (perhaps a private-public partnership, jointly funded by businesses and government), enough to offer these researchers modest stipends, say $20,000-24,000 for the first year only, then they're on their own with whatever investment, and R&D contracts or grants they can muster.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your interest in Research Entrepreneur. I trust that your comments will be germane to the topic under discussion.

I welcome differences of opinion, but I do require that your comments contribute to open and honest discussion. If not, I retain the right to delete your contribution.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.