Higher Education & Economic Development: 3 Approaches

Institutions of higher education are under increasing pressure to play meaningful roles in regional economic development.  When many economic developers try to define a role for colleges and universities in their economy, it often comes out looking like the MIT lab recently highlighted in the New York Times’ business section, focusing on the commercialization of university research:

A chemical engineer by training, Dr. [Robert] Langer has helped start 25 companies and has 811 patents, issued or pending, to his name. That’s not too far behind Thomas Edison, who had 1,093. More than 250 companies have licensed or sublicensed Langer Lab patents. . . .

. . . . Along the way, Dr. Langer and his lab, including about 60 postdoctoral and graduate students at a time, have found a way to navigate some slippery territory: the intersection of academic research and the commercial market.

Over the last 30 years, many universities — including M.I.T. — have set up licensing offices that oversee the transfer of scientific discoveries to companies. These offices have become a major pathway for universities seeking to put their research to practical use, not to mention add to their revenue streams.

But that is only one of many roles higher education can play in economic development.  For example, in Australia, the government announced the creation of an interdisciplinary design center at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT):

“The Design Hub provides the research space needed – at a scale never previously available at RMIT or elsewhere in Australia – to increase research and postgraduate teaching in design.

“Until now, RMIT’s research in design was scattered across the university in facilities not ideal for collaborative work.

“The new Hub brings together Australian design researchers, leading international researchers and industry practitioners to work on joint projects, from architecture to interior design.

“The Hub gives Australian students and researchers the space they need for the sort of cross-disciplinary research that will make Australia truly innovative in this field and be more competitive in the global economy.

We’ve previously highlighted the importance of design education for economic competitiveness. The RMIT model seeks to bring those aspects of the university into closer alignment with the needs of businesses.

Another approach is embodied in the recent announcement of the creation of a Food & Beverage Alliance to be housed at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY:

[US Senator Charles] Schumer said the Food and Beverage Alliance is a “smart federal investment” to help the economy bounce back from storms. The alliance would be housed in the $19 million Marriott Pavilion, which is under construction, at the Culinary Institute of America. The grant is pending final approval.The alliance launched Feb. 2 to link farmers with restaurants, educational institutions, distributors and food producers while providing business training and development.

In this case, the Culinary Institute is providing key regional industries with access to physical space and technical expertise in an effort to strengthen the area’s agriculture and culinary businesses.

Clearly if your area has a high-powered research university like MIT or Stanford in its backyard, the technology commercialization model makes good sense.  But as this post suggests, if your region’s colleges and universities are not in that league, there are many other ways to engage higher education in regional economic development.  It is a question of matching the resources available to regional needs and/or opportunities.

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