September 19, 2007

C.U. Faculty Awarded Grants

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Last August, Cornell faculty members, Matthew Delisa, Dan Luo and Johannes Gehrke were awarded grants of $750, 000 from the New York State Foundation for Science, Technology and Innovation (NYSTAR). These government grants, earmarked for commercially viable research, are nothing new. But what has changed is Cornell’s ability to follow the established trend and recognize their significance.
Nearly a decade ago, “Cornell was behind the curve compared to places like the MIT or Stanford” in terms of technology transfer, according to Prof. David BenDaniel of the Johnson Graduate School of Management.
BenDaniel, who compared research cultures at various universities in a 1998 publication, cited Cornell’s rural location as a source of this difference, but pointed to differences in university leadership and culture as the overwhelming factors. When comparing Cornell and MIT, BenDaniel noted that both were “founded at [about] the same time and [in] the same practical way” and that “MIT kept going in that direction, but Cornell, due to its allegiance to [the] Ivy league model,” tended to favor academic research.
BenDaniel also pointed to MIT’s former vice president, Vannevar Bush, as the figurehead who guided the University toward becoming the commercially relevant research university it is today. Melba Kurman, media contact for the Cornell Center for Technology Enterprise and Commercialization (CCTEC), agreed that such a counterpart at Cornell has been lacking; “there hasn’t been a strong champion of it,” she said.
When corporations started scaling back their own research and development departments in the 1960s, they looked to universities to provide them with intellectual property. According to BenDaniel, this was something that Cornell had resisted, “[thinking] they were doing the right thing.”
But given the success of other Universities in establishing themselves as commercially applicable institutions and local economic powerhouses, “Cornell can’t afford not to be good at technology transfer,” Kurman said. This is especially true given that the strength of the University’s technology transfer program has become a deciding factor in attracting new faculty members.
It now seems that the breach of academic purity is no longer a debate. When it comes to industry and academia, “the line is not that clear anymore;” instead, “there is a continuum,” said Prof. Joesph Burns, vice provost of physical sciences and engineering. Cornell now deems technology transfer an essential part of its mission to benefit society by making technology applicable and accessible.
BenDaniel noted that “Cornell engineering is about where MIT’s was 20 years ago” in terms of technology transfer. Though its taken 20 years for Cornell to join the race, the hope is that it will take less than that to catch up.