With the economy in dire need of a boost, an increasing number of Japan’s universities have, with government support, started collaborating with the private sector to create new businesses to revamp the nation’s industrial competitiveness.
This cooperative relationship between universities and business, according to Stanford University President John Hennessy, is particularly useful when promoting the transfer of new technologies from universities to industry.
Hennessy said universities should be actively involved in transferring technologies to industry, because such efforts not only contribute to society but to the further development of the technologies.
“Universities have an obligation to see if their research can be a service to the public,” Hennessy said in a recent interview in Tokyo with The Japan Times. “But I think equally importantly, the way in which they interact with industry can affect how your research develops.”
The government has pledged to increase the number of ventures originating from universities to 1,000 in the next three fiscal years, according to a report compiled by the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy, led by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. The number of enterprises established by universities totaled 424 as of the end of August, according to the education ministry.
University researchers’ involvement in business is nothing new at Stanford and other U.S. colleges, Hennessy said.
Stanford, closely connected to Silicon Valley, has a long tradition of close interaction between the academic and business world. According to Hennessy, a number of companies originating from the university were up and running in the 1980s, when the valley really took off.
University faculty members often take leaves and utilize their skills and technology in the private sector, while graduate students start ventures based on their research at the university, Hennessy said, noting that in the last 20 years, at least one enterprise has been launched every year from Stanford.
In 1984, during a sabbatical, Hennessy cofounded MIPS Computer Systems, now MIPS Technologies, which designs microprocessors. The company’s business is based on the computer architecture established by Hennessy and other researchers at Stanford, and deals with increasing the performance and reducing the cost of microprocessors.
Hennessy launched the venture because large corporations were reluctant to commercialize the technology, he said, explaining that it has now been widely utilized in the embedded systems of various products, including laser printers.
He acknowledged there are often difficulties in establishing collaboration between academia and business world.
The key for a successful transfer is to involve people who are interested in the transfer and to develop a culture in which people appreciate the roles the different fields play, Hennessy said.
Though it goes against many traditions in Japan, behavior of this kind needs to be encouraged, he said.
Stanford has developed a culture that supports both faculty and students in this regard, he said.
Professors who are involved in firms and starting up their own businesses can also enhance their lectures and classes, Hennessy said.
“What we are teaching is guided by an understanding of how the industry works and how businesses actually work. So it’s not completely abstracted away from reality,” Hennessy said. “I think that it makes us better teachers in the classroom.”
Through such lessons, students can nurture entrepreneurial interests, Hennessy said, explaining that the university provides internship programs that enable students to get experience working at small companies.
“Students have a much better understanding of how industry works, so they begin to think about their careers,” he said. “They have a better insight on what they might want to be.”
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