Tapping into the economic potential of universities


The university head and adviser to the TCD/UCD research alliance is keen to see Irish universities flourish, writes KARLIN LILLINGTONin Stanford, California

IN THE waiting area of the office of Stanford University president John Hennessy, tucked into the corner of the campus’s beautiful Spanish-style quadrangle, there’s a large volume of historical photographs of the university.

As is clear from the early pictures of the raw young university, engineers have been a feature of Stanford from its very launch. More that a quarter of its first 559 students were engineering students. A gathering of civil engineering students and faculty in 1891 looks like extras from the Hollywood western Tombstone.

A school of engineering was established in 1925, and its seventh dean was one John Hennessy who has just been announced as the first international adviser to the new Trinity College/University College Dublin research collaboration, the Innovation Alliance.

Hennessy is an exuberant proponent of research, innovation, entrepreneurship and engineers. He has a strong handshake, a booming voice and a great love for his university, and his former department, which has spun out an extraordinary 800 companies.

He is no stranger to research and entrepreneurship himself. He was a key researcher behind what are now known as RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computer) microchips, which revolutionised computer chip architecture. In 1984, he co-founded MIPS Computer Systems, the well known designer of computer chips.

He is also independently wealthy; he sits on the board of Stanford spin-off Google and received 65,000 Google shares at its Initial Public Offering. He is on the board of another Stanford spin-off, Cisco. Socially active and an ardent fundraiser, he has helped secure massive donations for Stanford – including $90 million (€73 million) from Netscape founder Jim Clark. His former student, Yahoo founder Jerry Yang, has helped raise another $1 billion.

Of his new Irish job, he says: “It was something that was cooking all along.”

Stanford and TCD have a relationship that goes back many years, he says, and he’d met TCD president John Hegarty, UCD president Hugh Brady and Taoiseach Brian Cowen at Stanford on their recent trade mission to Silicon Valley. The idea of his personal involvement was discussed and agreed.

But a critical spur for his involvement lies in his surname. He has “a deep personal connection” with Ireland. He’s visited many times and met several Irish presidents.

His role is not specifically defined. “There’s no job description,” he says. But he expects to give advice and provide the expertise that comes from running not only one of the world’s great universities but also, one that throws off start-up companies and helps spur economic growth and create wealth and jobs at a higher rate than just about any place else.

“Ireland faces many of the same challenges as other countries throughout the world. You have to climb the economic ladder and what worked early on – largely, manufacturing and outsourcing – won’t work now. The question then becomes, how to build a larger economic presence. How do you recreate Silicon Valley. When I have visitors to Stanford, it’s their number one question,” Hennessy says.

It won’t happen if Ireland sticks with the European model for research, he states. In the US, he says, research funding is structured on meritocracy and peer review. “We’ve avoided what has become a problem in Europe – getting money and spreading it as thin as peanut butter. You can’t have full equality and excellence.”

He’s also critical of governments or research organisations that become dogmatic about the results they expect from research – including expectations of high numbers of jobs, companies spun off and meeting intellectual property quotas. There are areas that are important, and directions to go in, he says – stem cell research, for example, provides lots of opportunity but requires huge amounts of fundamental work first.

“Lots of serendipity”, he believes leads to spin-off companies, bolsters economies and creates jobs. “There is a risk when a university becomes a captive research organisation for industry. Industry is short-term. We are interested in long term.”

In short, research should not be about producing employees for companies, helping industrial partners develop their products, or ticking checklists of government committees. It has to be about funding key research by smart people in areas that look promising in the bigger picture. And letting the researchers get on with it. Consider Google. “The origin of Google was Larry Page doing a lot of work, not towards how to search the net, but digital libraries. It turned out that the techniques had applications for internet search. But the research funding was supporting searching digital libraries.”

Every Irish university would like to produce a Google. But the reality is that, even for Stanford, spinning out companies only produces a drop in the financial bucket for the university.

Since 1970, Stanford has disposed of its equity holdings in spin-off companies to the cumulative value of $364 million – of which its stake in Google was the largest contributor. Forty years of equity disposals by Stanford have yielded in total less than 9 per cent of just a single year’s operating budget – and technology licensing contributes under 2 per cent each year to the university’s overall budget – facts that might not fit well with Irish Government, university or public expectations of research as a money and jobs machine.

Hennessy laughs. The point of university level research for a university, he says, is “to get the research out, not to extract a lot of money from research”.

Good research then produces good companies, which produce jobs, and which spin out other companies, which create more jobs. “We should really think about universities as an even greater force for economic growth” because university research “is payback for society”, says Hennessy.

For the university “philanthropy is the long-term benefit” – the long game that brings money, huge amounts of money, into a university like Stanford.

And it has to be a long game. No one could have foreseen the riches students David Packard and Bill Hewlett, two of the university’s greatest benefactors, would return to Stanford, Hennessy notes. Yet, Hewlett-Packard was running for 20 years before the founders made their first donation.

And what are his goals for his Irish job? “Obviously, we’d like to see Ireland flourish and the universities flourish. But how do you make this kind of vibrant university, new jobs, new growth – really work? What ingredients are there? It’s the ideal opportunity to determine what pieces really are there. It’s an opportunity also to understand how to do this and make it a model for universities everywhere.”