ack in the day, universities walked a straight line, educating students in the basics and turning out academicians first and foremost. Even as they tossed tasseled caps into the air, graduates anticipated further studies in law or medicine or were gearing up for entry-level positions that promised a lifetime of job security, retirement savings and, for the go-getters, management promotions.
Many see this scenario going the way of the Princess phone and the wood-paneled station wagon. Secondary education in 2018 still hews to the three Rs, but it also is assuming a vital role in the startup economy. The beneficiaries extend well beyond the students and into the localities surrounding these institutes of higher learning.
Increasingly, towns, cities and community business councils work side by side with colleges to identify, attract, retain and invest in promising entrepreneurs and technicians, engineers and researchers well before they don their caps and gowns. The University of California, Irvine, has fostered just such a partnership, and all parties are reaping the rewards.
“The key is to make Orange County a globally recognized entrepreneurial region,” said Richard Sudek, executive director and chief innovation officer of UCI Applied Innovation. “That’s an outward-facing vision. The community is a top priority, because if we raise the tide of entrepreneurship in Orange County, that helps the energy here on campus.”
At UCI Applied Innovation, which is the school’s central clearinghouse for technology transfer, industry-sponsored research and entrepreneurial support to many campus programs, fully a third of the 40,000-square-foot facility, known as the Cove, is occupied by outside entities: venture capital firms, angel investment groups, accelerators and industry associations. The long waitlist for office and lab space is one of the reasons behind the Cove’s imminent expansion to 68,000 square feet. “More and more companies are outsourcing the ‘R’ of R&D,” said Sudek.
The mandate for UCI Applied Innovation, which has the firm support of the university’s chancellor, Howard Gilman, and its provost, Enrique Lavernia, is to break down barriers between campus startup and local business communities. Sudek, who took the helm of the program in 2014, noted that Irvine was the first UC campus to figure out how a state school could house and rent to for-profit companies.
“We wanted to bring the ecosystem in-house and create a center of gravity for entrepreneurial activity in Orange County,” said Sudek, who at 25 created his own startup. Sudek went on to lead the huge investor group Tech Coast Angels, earn an MBA, a master’s degree and a doctorate, teach entrepreneurship and organizational behavior at Chapman University, and head up the Leatherby Center, Chapman’s version of Applied Innovation. “I’m wired to work,” he quipped.