Student Innovation Needs Support

Jul 6, 2016

Institutions of higher education often talk about being “student-centered” but, sometimes, policies meant to support this objective actually get in the way.

Consider student research and innovation. Most universities now have explicit policies concerning the commercialization of research and offices dedicated to supporting these efforts. And the existing system appears to be a win/win: For the student, these arrangements provide assistance in obtaining patents and copyrights and for negotiating licensing agreements with third parties. For the institution, these facilities have become an important, new source of unencumbered revenue.

Despite successes, however, such provisions can also introduce problems. Take, for example, the experience of Marc Andreessen, who helped invent Mosaic, the first graphical internet browser, while a student at the U of I.

When Andreessen graduated and formed Netscape in 1994, he attempted to negotiate a license with the U of I in order to use the innovations he created. But the process was so frustrating that Andreessen scrapped the idea and rewrote the browser code entirely. Meanwhile, successfully negotiated contracts with other organizations, like Microsoft, netted the U of I a total of $7 million.

When students like Andreessen have difficulties using or licensing the innovations they have developed, the existing commercialization policies cease being a useful service and start interfering with future opportunities.

If we truly want to encourage and protect student innovation, we need policies that help turn academic work into opportunity rather than merely ensuring a revenue stream for the institution.

It’s all about priorities. 

I’m David Gunkel, and that is my perspective.