Incubating innovation


Image Credits: Easyturn/iStock

John Holden


John Holden is a journalist specializing in science, tech and innovation. His work has appeared mainly in the Irish Times.

More posts from John Holden

City officials worldwide are bursting blood vessels trying to figure out how to create their own version of Silicon Valley. From the Silicon Hills in Austin, Texas to Silicon Alley in NYC, the Silicon Docks in Ireland’s capital city to Silicon “Wadi” in Israel, potential new global tech hubs are popping up everywhere.

Having the right ingredients for innovation to flourish on a scale similar to Silicon Valley will take more than stealing the moniker. The formal elements — an open economy, regulation that supports enterprise, a creative culture and easy access to capital — are the parts of the puzzle that could be implemented anywhere. However, the key ingredient underpinning Silicon Valley’s success, many believe, has been the steady flow of skilled engineers — with an entrepreneurial mindset — coming out of Stanford University.

“SV was largely driven by Stanford University — it has become a magnet for attracting the best talent in tech,” says Dr. Damien McLoughlin, professor of marketing and associate dean at University College Dublin (UCD) Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School in Ireland. “As an educator, it does make me wonder what universities elsewhere should be doing differently. Just a few decades ago, all the smartest people worked for universities. Today they’re all in startups.”

For tech hubs to thrive, a city or region needs a nearby university, with a strong research and engineering tradition, providing a constant supply of skilled graduates. However, that isn’t enough. “There must also be a culture of tech commercialization within any nearby university,” says Chuck Eesley, assistant professor at Stanford’s Department of Management Science & Engineering and affiliated faculty member at the Stanford Technology Ventures Program. “There’s no place for the Ivory Tower academic mindset, or the idea that commercialization somehow gets your hands dirty.”

University incubators are already responsible for the commercialization of academic research output. But, in most cases, their influence is minor and peripheral. “Perhaps the university of tomorrow should be more like one big incubator,” suggests McLoughlin.

By fostering an environment where tech startups and tech entrepreneurs can engage with university academics and students openly, and ideas can be shared more fluidly by industry and academia, one can achieve greater levels of innovation.

Universities used to be where the smartest people in the world went to exchange ideas. Some spent their whole lives there as faculty and helped steer the brightest and best young students who passed through during their tenure. The role of the 21st century educational institution has changed. “In the past, the most important academic questions focused around the meaning of life and why we exist,” says McLoughlin. “Today the questions have changed, with one of the most important being: how do we engage with tech to make society better? If you ask me where the ideal place would be to try and answer fundamental questions like this in a truly independent way, the university is the obvious location.

Is Stanford an already existing example of one such great, big incubator? “There’s definitely a special set of ingredients that came together here for the kind of high-tech entrepreneurship to emerge in SV,” says Eesley.

“There are other institutions with great engineering programs, like Caltech and Carnegie Mellon University, but they haven’t been able to achieve the same level of commercialization. They have great breakthroughs, but something is missing.”

It’s also critical that university policy makes it simple for faculty members and/or students to commercialize research. If institution authorities are overly concerned with royalties and ensuring they negotiate the biggest piece of the IP pie for the alma mater, they’re unlikely to encourage entrepreneurship from within.

“I have experience in this area at both MIT and Stanford,” says Eesley. “MIT used to focus on negotiating as good a deal as possible for the university in every situation. Now their focus is on maximizing the number of deals getting done on campus. That is key to enabling true entrepreneurship in an academic setting.”

Bringing in former alumni who became entrepreneurs to mentor also has an impact. “We did studies of mentorship where we randomized which students were matched with entrepreneurs or with VCs, and various other alumni who may have had successful careers but who never actually started a business,” says Eesley. “The ones with entrepreneurs for mentors were far more likely to start an early-stage startup upon graduation.”

Eesley isn’t suggesting what’s happened (and continues to happen) in the southern Bay Area isn’t possible elsewhere. “Tech hubs can emerge in almost any location,” he says. “We know this because the centers of innovation of the past in the U.S. were places like Detroit and Cleveland. Just a few short decades ago, if you were a young, talented engineer, these were the cities you were drawn to.”

Commerce at the expense of the arts

With little to ostensibly offer in an educational system driven even more by commercial interests, the arts and humanities would presumably suffer most, and be considered to have even less value than they already do.

McLoughlin disagrees. “In this context, engaging more with tech startups only appears as a prioritization of business and commerce above all else on a superficial level. The arts give us access to our cultural life and the culture of society,” he says. “If the incubator model were to be adopted in an overall university setting, the arts would thrive. The social sciences, in particular, would be put to the fore in the development of new tech and people would think more about the consequences of new innovations. Many of the negative aspects of life in the digital age could be avoided or minimized if there were more independent input during the design stages of new tech. If innovation was driven as much by universities as it is by startups, we would all benefit.”

More TechCrunch

Welcome back to TechCrunch’s Week in Review. This week had two major events from OpenAI and Google. OpenAI’s spring update event saw the reveal of its new model, GPT-4o, which…

OpenAI and Google lay out their competing AI visions

Expedia says Rathi Murthy and Sreenivas Rachamadugu, respectively its CTO and senior vice president of core services product & engineering, are no longer employed at the travel booking company. In…

Expedia says two execs dismissed after ‘violation of company policy’

When Jeffrey Wang posted to X asking if anyone wanted to go in on an order of fancy-but-affordable office nap pods, he didn’t expect the post to go viral.

With AI startups booming, nap pods and Silicon Valley hustle culture are back

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

A new crop of early-stage startups — along with some recent VC investments — illustrates a niche emerging in the autonomous vehicle technology sector. Unlike the companies bringing robotaxis to…

VCs and the military are fueling self-driving startups that don’t need roads

When the founders of Sagetap, Sahil Khanna and Kevin Hughes, started working at early-stage enterprise software startups, they were surprised to find that the companies they worked at were trying…

Deal Dive: Sagetap looks to bring enterprise software sales into the 21st century

Keeping up with an industry as fast-moving as AI is a tall order. So until an AI can do it for you, here’s a handy roundup of recent stories in the world…

This Week in AI: OpenAI moves away from safety

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

2 days ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

2 days ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases

The EU’s warning comes after Microsoft failed to respond to a legally binding request for information that focused on its generative AI tools.

EU warns Microsoft it could be fined billions over missing GenAI risk info

The prospects for troubled banking-as-a-service startup Synapse have gone from bad to worse this week after a United States Trustee filed an emergency motion on Wednesday.  The trustee is asking…

A US Trustee wants troubled fintech Synapse to be liquidated via Chapter 7 bankruptcy, cites ‘gross mismanagement’

U.K.-based Seraphim Space is spinning up its 13th accelerator program, with nine participating companies working on a range of tech from propulsion to in-space manufacturing and space situational awareness. The…

Seraphim’s latest space accelerator welcomes nine companies

OpenAI has reached a deal with Reddit to use the social news site’s data for training AI models. In a blog post on OpenAI’s press relations site, the company said…

OpenAI inks deal to train AI on Reddit data

X users will now be able to discover posts from new Communities that are trending directly from an Explore tab within the section.

X pushes more users to Communities

For Mark Zuckerberg’s 40th birthday, his wife got him a photoshoot. Zuckerberg gives the camera a sly smile as he sits amid a carefully crafted re-creation of his childhood bedroom.…

Mark Zuckerberg’s makeover: Midlife crisis or carefully crafted rebrand?

Strava announced a slew of features, including AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, a new ‘family’ subscription plan, dark mode and more.

Strava taps AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, unveils ‘family’ plan, dark mode and more

We all fall down sometimes. Astronauts are no exception. You need to be in peak physical condition for space travel, but bulky space suits and lower gravity levels can be…

Astronauts fall over. Robotic limbs can help them back up.

Microsoft will launch its custom Cobalt 100 chips to customers as a public preview at its Build conference next week, TechCrunch has learned. In an analyst briefing ahead of Build,…

Microsoft’s custom Cobalt chips will come to Azure next week

What a wild week for transportation news! It was a smorgasbord of news that seemed to touch every sector and theme in transportation.

Tesla keeps cutting jobs and the feds probe Waymo