Survey: More Americans Believe Research Universities Drive Innovation...

Higher Education

Survey: More Americans Believe Research Universities Drive Innovation than Startups or Government

By Tina Nazerian     May 2, 2018

Survey: More Americans Believe Research Universities Drive Innovation than Startups or Government

When you think about the industries driving innovation, startups are probably the first come to mind. But for most Americans, it turns out, education is leading the pack.

A new survey from the University of Chicago’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation shows that 71 percent of Americans believe research universities play a major role in driving innovation in the United States. In contrast, 53 percent of survey respondents said the same for startups. The numbers were 60 percent and 47 percent for large corporations and government, respectively.

The findings may come as a surprise to those looking to Silicon Valley as inspiration and a leader in innovation, as well as those who watch the space closely. Eric Isaacs, the executive vice president of research, innovation and national laboratories at the University of Chicago, says he wasn’t aware of how many people “perceive the universities as the engines of innovation.”

Entrepreneurs like Yang Zheng, however, are less taken back by the findings. He says the survey fits in with his own experience launching a startup, Oxalo Therapeutics, that received money from the Innovation Fund, which is tied to the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

Starting a company at a university, Zheng says, provided his early-stage startup with not only funds to get off the ground, but also access to a wealth of knowledge and resources on campus. He says that startups in university environments are able to leverage students in different areas, such as those in the business, medical and law schools, for advice and brainstorming.

“We’re able to get in touch [with] the doctors and physicians in the medical schools, and work off their discoveries,” says Zheng, an MBA student at the school. Those resources, he adds, are “very hard to come by” in the “real world.”

Companies that have come from higher-ed institutions include Grubhub from the University of Chicago, and FuelX from Stanford University. Nevertheless, higher-ed institutions face their own set of barriers when it comes to innovation.

“[Universities] can’t take as much risk from a business perspective,” Zheng says, referring to limited funding that institutions can offer early startups like his.

The issue of funding resonated with a majority of the survey participants. Specifically, the survey found that 53 percent of respondents felt decreases in government funding have been a major barrier to innovation in the United States.

Isaacs believes there should be more federal investment in research. “Companies will not invest in the basic research we do here at a university, it has to be a federal investment,” he says.

Isaacs also points out another kind of innovation that universities have traditionally been known for: “American ingenuity.” The researcher believes universities have always been progressive places where people are “allowed to think, because of academic freedom, in almost any direction they choose.”

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