By SUSAN JONES
The best awards may be the ones you didn’t even know you were in the running for.
Evan Facher, vice chancellor for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and director of the Innovation Institute, said when he found out a new report by the George W. Bush Institute ranked Pitt 18th out of 195 U.S. universities for creating impact through innovation, “it came out of left field.”
This is the University’s first appearance on the list by the Bush Institute, a nonpartisan policy center housed within the George W. Bush Presidential Library, and Pitt is the only Western Pennsylvanian university to make the list’s top 25.
“It was a complete third-party organization that we didn’t even know was doing this, saying, ‘Hey, what you folks are doing is top class kind of kind of work,’” Facher said.
The ranking helps the Innovation Institute’s customers — faculty, staff and students and businesses in the region — “believe that maybe we kind of know what we’re doing, versus 10 years ago, when we probably didn’t know what we were doing,” he said
A Pitt alum alerted Facher to the ranking, which is based on data from the Association of University Technology Managers for the years 2013 to 2017, plus data on patent citations, academic paper citations, graduate numbers and other university attributes from publicly available websites, according to the institute.
A composite score looked at variables measuring the success of universities in:
1. Technology commercialization
2. Entrepreneurship based on intellectual property and technologies licensed from the university
3. Research impact on other researchers and inventors
4. Production of STEM graduates, at the Ph.D., master’s and bachelor’s levels
“We’ve been getting more notice at a national level with rankings and things of that nature,” Facher said.
In 2017, Pitt ranked 24th in the Milken Institute University Technology Transfer and Commercialization Index.
“I think it reinforces the things that we’ve been doing since the Innovation Institute was created (in 2013),” Facher said. “It was kind of a prescient thought that if we were to do this and put these things under one umbrella that it would enhance our ability as a University to take ideas, regardless if they were from faculty, staff or students, and help the commercialization and innovation ecosystem on campus.”
Because the Bush Institute report is for 2013 to ‘17, Facher said the numbers lag a bit on what they are doing now.
“Every year, we get 360 new inventions that come in the door,” he said. In addition, in its first year, the Innovation Institute worked with 500 students and now they are up to 1,800 a year.
“We’re doing more stuff with more people, so eventually those rankings will come because we have a large stockpile of opportunities and really smart people — faculty, staff and students. When you put that system together, it’s going to lead to good results,” Facher said.
And while ranking 18th is great, he said, “How do we maintain and how do we continue to improve this, I think really is where the challenge will be for us.”
Faculty and alumni who are entrepreneurs or are working in tech companies understand the excitement around innovation and world-changing opportunities at Pitt, Facher said. “In all of our conversations with these folks, it gives them a really, really warm feeling that the University is — despite the fact that we are 230 something years old — we’re not as old and stodgy as we could be.”
He said in a recent trip with people from Pitt Philanthropy and Alumni Engagement to Cupertino, Calif. — home of Apple — they met with four or five Pitt alums who were here before the Innovation Institute existed. “They were blown away that we do this stuff, because when they were here, there was never a mention of commercialization or innovation or entrepreneurship and there was no real help.
“Being able to show this kind of a ranking also demonstrates to them (that) we’re doing this stuff and that we can always use support, either from a mentorship perspective to give back time or certainly from a financial perspective, because we have resource limitations, just purely from a budgetary perspective.”
Facher said the 70 people involved in the Innovation Institute are still struggling with how they can interact with and provide service to customers remotely. All of their student interactions have been converted to virtual, including the Randall Family Big Idea Competition in the spring and all activities in the fall.
“With faculty, we are doing a bunch of outreach to let them know that we’re still open for business,” he said. “The full set of capabilities we have are still available to people.”
They are planning now for September and October, which will include other competitions done virtually.
One positive he’s seen come out of the pandemic is the ability of Pitt researchers to take projects they’ve been working on for years and adapt to make their ideas applicable and useful to addressing the problems created by COVID-19.
“What we’ve seen on the COVID side is entrepreneurship at its purest form. but folks don’t realize it,” Facher said. “It’s taking all this research that I’ve done that’s been used for this area and pivoting and seeing how I can use it to address a current customer need. Either on the therapeutic side or the diagnostic side or the PPE side, we’ve seen folks be so entrepreneurial and open minded around how could they take what they’re doing and try to answer this great scientific question that we have right now.”
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-648-4294.
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