A lot of people call me a pessimist. It’s usually the people who see the glass half full or the people who like to tinker when things are not what they’d like them to be. They aren’t wrong, nor do I question their actions. Half is a half, no matter which half, and without tinkerers, there’d be a whole lot less improvements in the world.
But, I like to think I’m a realist. I also like to question why. Why is there water in the glass instead of orange juice? Why is it a glass instead of a mug? For that matter, why can’t you make lasagna in a pie pan? Isn’t that just spaghetti pie? Or be a vegetarian who hates vegetables? Isn’t that why juicers exist?
A couple weeks back, I participated in my first meeting as a member of UC Riverside’s Technology Partnerships Advisory Committee. The committee is comprised of C-level industry executives and experienced entrepreneurs who provide feedback, guidance, and advice regarding the great research, technology commercialization, and startup activities being undertaken at UCR. Among Chancellor Wilcox’s strategic goals is to achieve the profile of an AAU-member university. AAU-member universities, some of the most prestigious in the world, are dedicated to the pursuit of innovation, scholarship, and solutions that contribute to the nation’s economy, security, and well-being. That’s quite a goal considering that UC Riverside ranked 130th in NSF’s 2014 rankings of all U.S. universities by total R&D expenditures. Vis-à-vis U.S. AAU members, UC Riverside is ahead of only Brandeis.
In support of Chancellor Wilcox’s goal, Vice Chancellor for Research and Economic Development, Dr. Michael J Pazzani, himself a prominent scholar on machine learning and co-founder of a successful startup, is taking a number of steps to increase the university’s revenue from licensed technology, expand the number and impact of student and professor-launched companies, and even create a venture investment fund to support university and local technology-based startups.
While none of these steps are all that unusual at research universities today, I agreed to join Dr. Pazzani’s advisory board because of something much bigger taking place at UC Riverside and the UC System in general. There are lots of people and organizations today focused on solving grand challenges, like climate change, food security, and human health. They believe that, as a biological species, our perspective needs to transcend arbitrary measures and limited action. But, there are also lots of people and organizations today who understand that “grandness” is a relative measure. For a small, regional research university, achieving parity with some of the largest, most successful research universities in the world is its own grand challenge. At UC Riverside and the UC Office of the President, they aren’t worried if the glass is half full or empty. They are asking, why? Or better yet, like Wilber and Grandpa Mole Rat in one of my favorite children’s books, they are completely overturning conventional wisdom by insisting, “Why not?!”
So, while I sat there listening to UC Riverside professors and students talk about using their research and startups to revolutionize crop sciences and autonomous navigation and human healthcare, I too believed, why not!!
Note: A special shout out this week to my colleague and friend, Christine Gulbranson, who was just named SVP for research innovation and entrepreneurship at UC’s Office of the President. I also applaud UC President Napolitano for the innovative thought leadership and devotion she has shown in increasing the innovation and entrepreneurial capabilities of the UC system. Both women are exceptional examples of what can be accomplished when we insist, why not.