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The Lure of Industry

- By Bruce Auster   

Fearful of losing their top minds to the magnet of corporate America, universities are letting their engineering educators straddle the fence between industry and academia.

The problem is straightforward enough: A good professor with a hot technology wants to see if the marketplace, instead of the university, is the place to be. What's an engineering department to do?

Even though the tech start-up gold rush has subsided, schools must still work to keep their faculty members from trading the classroom for the executive suites. In a few key fields—computer sciences, computer engineering, and electrical engineering chief among them—the lure of industry continues to steal prized professors, who are drawn sometimes for the prospect of striking it rich and sometimes by the challenge of something new. "A lot of this happened with start-ups," says John L. Anderson, the dean of engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. "Faculty made a discovery and decided to go off on their own and commercialize it. We've been nicked here by a few companies."

Though professors have worked as consultants to industry for decades, the lure of fast money before the bust created a new set of expectations about the trajectory of an academic's career—and forced universities to examine their own policies for retaining the best teachers and researchers. At the heart of the debate, it turns out, is the still unfinished business of determining who owns an idea: the professor or the school. That scuffle is being worked out, one case at a time, across the country. And more and more, schools are finding creative ways to keep professors on staff, while allowing them to stray just enough to satisfy the entrepreneurial urge.

For many of these professors, in fact, the desire to leave the university lab has less to do with making money than with stretching themselves professionally. Jeremy Semrau was hired as an assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering by the University of Michigan in 1995. But he's spent recent months on sabbatical at a California-based company called Nanostream that specializes in microfluidics. Though Semrau earned tenure at Michigan and worked extensively in the lab, he viewed the task at Nanostream as the sort of challenge he couldn't find at the university. "At Michigan, it was microbiology, discovering new things," he explains. "Here it's taking that information and applying it. It's kind of exciting to take information and play with it and create devices and test to see if they work and come up with a product to give to someone."

With those sorts of temptations calling, some universities are finding ways to let faculty try their hand in corporate labs without severing ties to their schools. "We are trying to make it easier for faculty to be entrepreneurs," says Janie Fouke, dean of engineering at Michigan State University. "We're trying to be aggressive, we're trying to defend against folks leaving." The trick is to get them to feel they're getting the best of both worlds. Which is what an academic career can offer, says Surekha Vajjhala of Nanostream.

"The beauty of an academic career is you don't have to choose," she says. "You can supplement your income with consulting agreements, you can launch a company, or take a sabbatical."

Venturing Outside

That balancing act is what more and more professors—and their schools—are seeking to achieve. Offering sabbaticals—in which professors and researchers take time to work at a company for a period of months or even a year or more—is one of the tools available to deans such as Fouke. One member of Fouke's faculty, Robert Schlueter, just completed a 6-month sabbatical. The electrical engineer, a 31-year veteran of the MSU faculty, had identified a project that he did not want to see languish in the laboratory. He believed he needed to try his hand on the outside, but he also did not want to abandon the academic world. The sabbatical was a natural compromise.

Schlueter has developed a technology he feels has great value to the electric power industry: His company, Intellicon (for intelligent control) helps utilities identify vulnerabilities in a grid that can cause a blackout; then the technology helps to develop intelligent controls to prevent the blackout. The obstacle to turning the idea into reality is not technological, Schlueter says. It's financial. "This is not an industry where there are lots of venture capitalists, people who are investing in seed ideas," he says. "It requires somebody to actually form a company, prove the concept, apply it to big systems, and sell it." Given heightened concerns, since September 11, about the risks to public infrastructure, Schlueter also felt that his laboratory creation served a crucial public good. " I believe I had a moral obligation to act," he says.

Yet rather than leave the university to run the company, he elected to remain on the faculty. But from last December through May, he used his sabbatical to work full time for his company. He worked for it all summer, as well. And in this new school year, he will reduce his teaching load (and his salary) by some 30 percent. What he did not want to give up, however, was his connection to the university. The reason has quite a lot to do with Schleuter's sense of himself as, at heart, an academic. "Knowledge is what drives me," he says. "So leaving the university would be almost heretical. It would compromise who I am." Fouke's flexibility has allowed him to enjoy both worlds.

But not all schools and scholars can strike a bargain that satisfies each side. Some of the obstacles are basic management headaches for the university: Who will carry the teaching load while the professor is away? And who will advise the professor's students? "Sometimes faculty members get so interested in start-ups, their attention to their first job wanes a bit," says Fouke. That means, say some engineering deans, that the rest of the faculty must bear the burden. There are other minor nuisances, too. Sometimes the school is unwilling to allow the professor or researcher to leave for more than a year; from the school's point of view, it's impossible to plan a semester without knowing which teachers will be available.

But the real stumbling block has been an inability, nationally, to find a formula to compensate both the school and the researcher who has a marketable idea. "The university has a need to protect its intellectual property," says Schlueter, "and universities have not yet come up with a way of protecting their assets without getting in the way of entrepreneurial motives of their faculty. That's going on all over the country." The problem cries out for a King Solomon to resolve it.

Some universities view an invention or an innovation as the sole property of the faculty member who tumbled to it. Other schools say they own their faculty's work product. And then there's a murky middle ground. In the first instance, when the teacher looks to market his discovery, the university risks getting no benefits from the work done in its lab. In the latter case, the professor may never get to bring a discovery to market. Many scholars are trying to find common ground. One possible guideline: If the idea is developed at the university, it's the university's property. If it's developed at the company, it's the company's. And if it's developed jointly, the profits should be split. But such a model is far from being adopted nationally. And so schools have to take an ad hoc approach. Universities, to protect themselves, have to be creative when cutting deals with their entrepreneurial faculty. At Michigan State, for example, Dean Fouke might be more willing to grant a sabbatical if the professor will learn new techniques that might bring the school more grant money.

But it is clear that there are almost as many approaches to this intellectual property conundrum as there are engineering schools. Aggressive institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—which has embraced the marriage of technology and business by creating an entrepreneurial center and holding business plan competitions—represent just one approach to the problem. Other schools are feeling their way, devising policy one decision at a time. Others are academic purists: John Anderson, of Carnegie Mellon, notes that professors have served as consultants to business for decades without there being any conflict. But he balks when faculty members want to use their university as a jumping off point for making money. "If you really want to be a discoverer, you want to be a professor," he says. "If want to make devices, then you want to be in business." Of course lab work is only part of the mission of the university. "There's also the aspect of teaching," says Anderson. "We all enjoy teaching, the thrill of educating students. You've got to get a high from that to be a prof. If you don't, you're in the wrong field."

But with so many opportunities tugging at them, many scholars are trying to live in two worlds at once. And, it turns out, the university is becoming the perfect perch for having it all.

 

Bruce Auster is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.
He can be reached at bauster@asee.org.