A continued focus on innovation

06-24-2009

With last week’s National Summit in Detroit wrapped up, this week I traveled to Washington, D.C., for a similar—if more intimate and focused—session on innovation.

On June 23, I participated on a panel that was part of an all-day State of Innovation Summit produced by Seed magazine and the Council on Competitiveness, a group of CEOs, university presidents, and labor leaders working to find ways to ensure Americans’ prosperity.

As a member of the Council on Competitiveness, I was pleased to see what a prominent role it played June 15–17 at the National Summit, where council president Deborah Wince-Smith participated on panels focusing on manufacturing.

On June 23, I joined fellow panelists Klaus Hoehn of John Deere, Cory Ondrejka of EMI Music, and Jim Phillips of Pinnacle Investments to talk about the day-to-day business of supporting and managing innovation. Ray Johnson of Lockheed Martin Corp. moderated the group.

When it comes to innovation, I agree with a point Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer made last week at the National Summit: “Fundamentally, investing in innovation is investing in people.”

He also noted the drawbacks of the short view for investment payback that publicly traded companies face. During this week’s panel discussion, I contrasted that with the longer time periods that allow university researchers to advance knowledge in ways that focus specifically on benefiting people and society.

Universities such as Michigan State attract and sustain a rich mix of creative people, often working collaboratively across a variety of disciplines, both in the sciences and the humanities. It’s a situation that breeds new thinking and, thus, innovation.

We encourage innovation among our faculty in a number of ways: by seed-funding early research, supporting grant applications, providing intellectual property guidance, recognizing distinguished professors for outstanding work, and by celebrating success and original thinking in other ways.

But I always come back to our mission as the real differentiator when it comes to setting us apart from many other enterprises.

We embrace an approach to innovation that springs from our values and harkens back to our 19th-century land-grant roots. Our drivers are a can-do spirit and an asset-based and action-driven approach that places a premium on collaboration to identify problems and find solutions. We focus on knowledge that, when applied, transforms lives and creates opportunities for our students and for communities around the world.

The innovation we pursue truly has the power to make tomorrow better than today for individuals, communities, nations, and the world. And this knowledge encourages creativity in our students, faculty, and partners. You can see the evidence of this in various stories on the MSU Web site, including those in this year’s President’s Report and those on our research highlights page.

Seed magazine, one of the summit’s cosponsors, coincidentally mentioned one of our researchers, James Ireland, in an article on the promise offered by the recent sequencing of the cow genome. He and some colleagues argue persuasively that cows and other farm animals are too often ignored as research subjects by funding agencies, which deprives us of potentially useful medical and veterinary knowledge.

Advocating for the resources for innovation can be just as crucial as the work itself. I also stood as an advocate at the summit this week for maintaining research universities such as Michigan State University as centers of applied knowledge—which is the heart of innovation.

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