Closing the Funding Gap, Promoting the Innovation Chain

As the producers of future innovators, game-changers and startups, more and more forward-thinking universities around the globe are practicing what they preach.

Leading universities are responding to an increasingly competitive environment for both public and private sector funding by doing what they do best: utilizing their entrepreneurial know-how and implementing novel strategies to reinvent themselves as centers of innovation attractive to outside investment. Moreover, the initiatives they are launching are not only helping to generate revenue, but are also being used as platforms for solving complex, global issues.

My institution, Tel Aviv University (TAU), along with others, are applying fresh perspectives and strategies to implement new programs, to attract funding, and to partner with other like-minded organizations to promote a global innovation chain.

And the results of these endeavors are powerful.

At TAU, our students and faculty are consistently producing groundbreaking research - with 3,500 projects in the works at any given time on our campus. Yet one of the major challenges we face is translating initial laboratory discoveries into practical technologies that can be commercialized by established companies or serve as the basis for a new company.

We resolved to bring in major global industry players to bridge the funding gap between science in a lab setting to science that leads to a real-world product.

TAU pioneered the $23.5 million Momentum Fund for institutional and private investors interested in supporting early-stage, commercialization-ready university technologies in a wide range of fields. Their funding is the academic equivalent of "angel investment" in high-potential "scientific startups." Our two lead investors are among the largest companies in the world - Indian conglomerate Tata and a Singapore-based investment company, Temasek.

With vital funding from our industry partners, who also keep the university focused on market needs, three dozen novel TAU technologies are now being groomed for commercialization in medicine, renewable energy, agriculture, transportation, and cybersecurity. The partnership is undoubtedly a major opportunity to improve health and quality of life around the world.

While I have seen the rewards of universities honing their own, proprietary knowledge and expertise to tackle broad problems and win resources and prestige, we must also realize that today's global issues are far too complex for universities to solely take a traditionally competitive approach. In today's world, higher education institutions must also devote energy to forging global cooperative relationships with kindred universities and other institutional allies to further promote a global innovation chain. Such forward-looking efforts bring together both investment capital and the intelligence of the world's great minds, irrespective of national boundaries.

Our work with China is just one model of success in this area. TAU partnered with Tsinghua University in Beijing to establish the joint XIN Center, an international hub for scientific and technical innovation and the most ambitious Israeli-Chinese research collaboration to date. The research center tackles global issues relating to energy, water, pollution, and disease, while contributing to both countries' technological and economic development. In addition to joint research, a faculty and student exchange program, workshops and conferences, the XIN Center cherry-picks top researchers and students in both countries with visionary research ideas. By providing them with optimal conditions to create, develop and leverage their promising projects - such as mentors, laboratories, funding, and business support - we are able to push forward cross-disciplinary research, explore new ways to answer global challenges, and cultivate future scientists and leaders.

Other leading universities are operating in a similar vein. Harvard University is also collaborating with Tsinghua and other Chinese institutions to establish a research program focused on one of today's most pressing issues - climate change - and the effort to secure a sustainable world.

The University of California, Berkeley, has partnered with global energy firm BP, along with the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and the University of Illinois, to lead a $500 million energy research consortium focused on producing new and cleaner sources of energy. The project combines the universities' world-class expertise in alternative energy research and policy with the corporate know-how of an experienced international energy company to research and develop viable solutions to maintain a healthy environment.

Increasingly, these unique partnerships between universities and the private sector will close the gap left by dwindling government support for research that can help better our world.

There's no question that universities everywhere are faced with the reality that public sector financial support for higher education is on the decline. In America, the average state's per-student allocation is 23 percent less than it was before the economy took a hit. And in Israel, as The Wall Street Journal recently noted, higher education has witnessed "massive disinvestment" since the early 70's, including large-scale cuts in senior research faculty at major universities. This year the national higher education budget won a rare reprieve from a planned $70 million budget cut by the Israeli Finance Ministry after it slashed $45 million last year. But the threat of more cuts remains.

In an era of limited public resources, universities must work harder than ever to contribute more fully to both global and domestic problem-solving to meet today's enormous challenges. As the producers of tomorrow's pioneers and entrepreneurs, we have the power to be the lifeblood and heartbeat of innovation. Modern universities are being challenged to become more creative, flexible and relevant - not just to survive, but to grow and improve in scale, scope, and impact.