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A lot of you who have a university in your town/city will have followed the “new” trend of the decade: your local politicians, possibly the University Chancellor or President, or members of the University Board of Regents have claimed that your local University is going to bring to your town new prosperity and new business by establishing a “tech park”. Maybe it all started when your local business leaders complain that your local public university is not doing enough to help the economy and the university responds by talking about a “Tech park”. At this point you should cringe, rant and rave and realize that your local Republican politicians have no clue. From decades of experience here are a few lessons I can pass onto your local politicians and your local University administrators. (see below)

Rule 1. No university should invest in a ‘Tech Park’ or a facility to hothouse “start-ups”. Why ? Well there are several parts to this. First universities do best by doing what universities do – that is being universities. Investing in the university itself is the best way to get local technology companies in your neighborhood (more on that later). Universities no longer have enough resources anymore to invest in anything other than in themselves. So you want to become a vibrant center for technology ? Invest in your local university: make it [your local university] the best you can in basic science and engineering.

Rule 2. Tech park managers don’t know any ‘tech’. They have no clue. They may be very nice folks, but techies have little interest in the tech park managers and your tech park manager is more likely to get a phone company or window installation company regional call center filling space in your local tech park than a high profile tech start-up. Techies like to talk to other techies and a good techie is not going to become a tech park manager.

Rule 3. Unless your local community is Boston, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Austin, Chicago, Seattle, Portland, Denver, Boulder, Madison, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Washington, Albany, Honolulu, or Detroit (yes, even Detroit) why does a techie with a start-up idea want to move to your community ? Low taxes ? Not a priority. Cheap housing ? Not a priority. A tech park ? Not a priority. Tax breaks ? Not a priority. The high priorities are other techies with whom to talk and with whom to go out for a beer. A coffee shop open at 3 am is a big plus. Ideally a restaurant open at 3 am with paper table cloths (for writing down equations and schematics during a heated discussion) in your town is a good thing. A sushi restaurant open at 3 am, with fresh sushi, is also good. Excellent take-away is a must. Tech is NOT 9-5, not in the start up stage, sometimes never. Specialty foods and quality stuff to buy: all a plus – yes lots of techies may look like bums, but they want to be comfortable bums. Guess what, appearance doesn’t matter, but comfort does. Oh, and a tolerant local police that does not get too fussed when I stop in the middle of the road to consider a possible solution to that pesky second order non-linear differential equation that has been bothering me all week is also a big plus.

Rule 4. The claims that your University tech park is better than all the others and if your community builds a local tech park then “they will come” are rubbish. There are about 125 ranked Ph.D. graduate programs in physics, and maybe 190 Ph.D. graduate physics programs altogether and almost everyone of those universities has a tech park. Your local university is competing with hundreds of other universities. Why is your local university special ? What is special about Boston (Route 128) and San Francisco are the very high densities of excellent Universities in a single location combined with a great urban environment with lots of attractions. It isn’t lower taxes for sure. It isn’t a tech park.
    As an aside, you may ask: ‘Why physics graduate programs as a reference ? Well this is a little arcane, but typically physics is likely to be the single most expensive science or engineering department at your local university, and physics is great candidate for elimination, to save your university money, in the eyes of politicians. For good examples of shuttering physics departments while building tech parks: see Texas.

Rule 5. If your local community is very much conservative Republican, then as the hypothetical techie, I do not want to move to your neighborhood. There are a few Techies who are Republicans, and a few are very good, but these are the exceptions – I, the hypothetical techie, am most likely a liberal Democrat, and I have going to feel very unwelcome in a neighborhood of church going Republicans. Republican family values ? Not interested. Welcoming churches ? Sorry, Sunday is a workday. It isn’t just that I don’t want to move to your little University town hosting ‘monster state U.’, I can’t make my friends to move there because its boring [Rule 3], and they [my friends] don’t like the idea of living in a neighborhood of bible thumping right wingers. My friends may not know how to talk to any ‘real person’, but perception is everything. My techie friends are the ones who are going to help to my start-up succeed. Basically there are good reasons why most high tech start-ups locate in urban centers that are liberal Democratic districts. This is an extension of Rule 3, but leads to Rule 7.

Rule 6. While there are some faculty who have started successful companies (sometimes 2 or 3 companies) and continue to be excellent faculty, these are exceptions. That there are science and engineering faculty who can do this is great BUT still these are rare exceptions, not the norm. Universities should actively discourage faculty from considering starting a ‘start-up’. Faculty generally do better at being faculty. Most faculty who have tried to start a company fail, destroy their careers, their teaching of graduate students becomes awful, and their efforts at doing science come to a complete stop. Starting a tech company is a lot of work and most efforts will fail. In my experience, almost all tech companies started by faculty will fail; there are exceptions, but not many. Science and engineering faculty tend to be good at science and engineering, not business, not sales, and they are fools to think otherwise. The science and engineering faculty fail not because the ideas are bad, but because, like me, they do not have the ‘correct’ skill set. Faculty who can make a tech start-up succeed will ignore the discouraging noise – so my dear university administrators and politicians, don’t worry about being discouraging. Go for Rule 7. For research scientists out there who are offended by this rule, ask yourself: ‘am I willing to spend 70 hours a week at my start-up just like I spend the time in my laboratory at the University ?’

Rule 7. If your town does not match Rule 3, and Rule 5 is a problem, your best bet for acquiring a new local start up tech company in your community are the science and engineering students studying at your local university [NOT the faculty: see Rule 6]. If the students like the area, they may want to stay, they know people locally, and they know the professors to whom to go for tech advice. The more science and engineering students your university has, the more likely one will start a tech company locally. The better your science and engineering departments, then the better trained the students, the better advice to be had from local professors, the better the university facilities to assist  that local start up (yes I know that in this latter case this is not the way it should be, but I am talking about reality, not the law). See Rule 1.

Rule 8. Make sure the local university understands that getting a degree in science or engineering costs MUST NOT cost students more than getting a degree in the humanities. Yes, training a student to become a scientist is way more expensive than say English literature [as practiced – an English lit prof. reading this, I beg of you not to be offended, you are needed too]. And if you want rule 6 and 7 to work, a very high faculty to student ratio in mathematics, science and engineering is essential [the better advice to be had from local professors], but this does makes the cost of science and engineering more expensive. But understand higher tuition or fees or extra “laboratory fees” are a huge disincentive to study science or engineering. Students who study science or engineering are no better off, no richer than your English lit major. Pay attention to Rule 7. To those out there who are English and Econ professors: please make sure your science and engineering undergraduates can actually write as well as understand basic economic arguments – they really do need some of the basic lessons you can teach them.

Rule 9. Make sure there are lots of research experience opportunities for the science and engineering undergraduates, especially for the mediocre students. Sure, a smart and clever and imaginative science and engineering student can start a brilliant tech company, but an industrious mediocre student can take a professor’s great idea that he/she heard in the laboratory, and turn that into a successful tech company. Don’t overlook the mediocre science and engineering student. That industrious mediocre student may find the idea of a start up much more attractive than going into science, going to graduate school and becoming a scientist. In fact, the mediocre student may be mediocre because becoming a scientist or doing science is just not their thing, and they really are exceptionally bright: just the thing to lead a ‘start-up’. This is an important extension to rule 7.

Rule 10. The more science and engineering faculty within the University, the more ideas floating around that could become the next ‘tech idea’ for a great company. But the faculty have to be good to have ideas out there for the undergraduates to steal for a tech start-up. Have the University hire the best without regard to race, creed, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, and the ability to ‘dress well’. Invest in those faculty. A good engineering college at your university is going to cost more than $50 to $60 million a year. A politician who says they want an engineering college at their local university and only wants to pony up $30 million is an idiot. Better a good university, without a college of engineering, but with good science departments, than a bad university with a bad college of engineering. An under-funded college of engineering at your local university will lead to policies that break rule 8. I have seen really small, but excellent, 4 year colleges unwittingly nurture a student who goes on to build a really great tech company.

Rule 11. Business innovation grants are generally a waste of money. It doesn’t work that way. Small Business Innovation Research (or SBIR) program grants go to companies already established or companies set up to write proposals to compete for SBIR grants. Maybe it does happen, but I have never seen an SBIR grant help establish a successful tech start up. If you are trying to get a tech start up going, you don’t have time to write grant proposals, at least not a great proposal. Most SBIR grants (not all, but most) fund dubious crap. So any local politician who starts talking about local business innovation grants has no idea how this really works and must be deemed an idiot. Invest in getting a great coffee shop to your community (rule 3). Beside, I doubt your local politicians could tell the different between a good engineering idea and a bad one; sometimes I can’t either, and I know a little “tech’.

University administrators and local politicians who break rules 1, 3, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and fail to understand any of the other rules should be forced to live on the median (median, not average) of local taxes paid by local tech start-ups in your neighborhood that are less than 4 years old. They must be required to use the Chronicle of Higher Education as toilet paper. Any university administrator or local politician who espouses the idea of “build it and they will come” regarding a tech park should be forced to pay all the local taxes that go to support your local convention center. Any sociologist who wants to send me a survey [I know, just 20 minutes of my time] to get my insights on how science is done, will get no answer unless they can help me find a solution to that pesky second order non-linear differential equation that has been bothering me all week.

Originally posted to infotech on Sat Dec 14, 2013 at 07:29 AM PST.

Also republished by Teachers Lounge.

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Comment Preferences

  •  At our local land grant univ. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    infotech, PeterHug

    it is playing out just as you describe--a huge, huge, huge expenditure of resources with promises of glory (Silicon Valley on the Platte River??) and so far just dismal, pitiful results. Why not spend those millions on something that will make the University better, educationally? Who decides these things? I wonder if the public even realizes this is going on.

    Where in the Constitution does it say: "...on behalf of corporate interests" ???

    by sillia on Sat Dec 14, 2013 at 07:46:38 AM PST

  •  1980's in Columbus at Ohio State (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    PeterHug, sillia, infotech, ItsSimpleSimon

    was when I experienced this trend beginning.

    The purpose of the tech part was to let businesses use university staff and resources without having to help nearly as much support the state university and its cruelly overpaid support staff.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Sat Dec 14, 2013 at 07:53:08 AM PST

  •  Add another (6+ / 0-)

    So called tech parks are most successful when they are linked to "arts" faculties as well technology based ones. The money is no longer in making hardware but in software, whether that is an application or movie or TV.

    They also work best when they grow naturally with a little encouragement rather than overt planning - inventions do not come to order.

    I'll give a few instances from the UK. The University of Surrey had a Faculty of Electronics and Physical Sciences. Early on they were involved in the development of the UK's space programme and the university started a Space Science Centre to facilitate this work. Later the university spun off the research satellite production to a company Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) That company developed an expertise in producing, especially, small cheap satellites for use by university research departments. SSTL was later brought by the EU giant Astrium and continues with ideas including micro-satellites powered by a smartphone.  That expertise in turn has led to it joining with telecoms companies to set up a research centre developing 5G mobile telecoms.

    Cambridge University deliberately set out to build a science park and was one of the first in the UK to do so.  You almost certainly have one if not several of the products to have come out of that - if you have almost any Apple device or smartphone or if your car has an anti lock braking system; its run on an ARM design. ARM grew out of Acorn Computers who made the BBC Micro computer. Instead of producing microprocessors, they produce block designs for manufacturers to make their own.  Also out of that park came the development work of Clive Sinclair (Spectrum micro and 2 inch mini TV among other innovations). The Cambridge Science Park is nicknames Britain's "Silicon Fen".

    Most recently, a non-university based area in what was a run down area of London just north of the City has become another centre of excellence and for many of the same reasons that the diary describes. It is based in the Old Street area and called after the road junction layout - hence "silicon roundabout". The area was popular with artists and startups anyway - the relatively cheap housing and studios meant that they could remain in London after having attended the several colleges of art and design plus it had the sorts of infrastructure like restaurants. Design is an integral part of another of the UK's big export earner, computer games. So there built up an expertise in both computer programming and design - part of the reason Google is building its main European headquarters in the area.

    We will work, we will play, we will laugh, we will live. We will not waste one moment, nor sacrifice one bit of our freedom, because of fear.

    by Lib Dem FoP on Sat Dec 14, 2013 at 08:53:32 AM PST

    •  I'd also suggest non-cannibalization of existing (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      infotech, Redfire

      resources as a beneficial aspect. Fully in keeping with your hope that such institutes or programs experience organic, self-driven growth.

      •  Simples (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        sillia, Redfire, ItsSimpleSimon

        The basic message is that you can develop a successful science or technology park IF you have a (dare I say) world class teaching and research facility in the university already*.  You do not grow a university on the back of a science park.

        *Or, as with Old Street, there is a confluence of several factors outside a University campus where interactions can happen between those with different skills and talent backgrounds. Another example of this is the "Silicon Glen" in the central belt of Scotland where the several big cities have both educational and manufacturing histories that drew companies to the area (Timex for example produced Sinclair's computers as well as watches in their plant there)

        We will work, we will play, we will laugh, we will live. We will not waste one moment, nor sacrifice one bit of our freedom, because of fear.

        by Lib Dem FoP on Sat Dec 14, 2013 at 09:32:32 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  Cambridge (UK) is not a city in the midwest (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Lib Dem FoP, sillia, Redfire

      Good points all, but the University of Cambridge (UK) is an exception that proves the has a tech park that works because Cambridge is a not a city America's midwest or south. It is a vibrant city but an hour from London by train, with a huge science and engineering faculty where the science and engineering faculty do not spend night and day writing grant proposals. It has 3 physics departments (the Cavendish, the Institute for Astronomy, the Department of applied mathematics and theoretical physics), a vibrant Chemistry Department with a former Chief Scientific Adviser to H.M. Government under both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and former Head of the Government Office for Science (Dave King) as a Professor, and a successful 'College of Engineering'. It is almost the ultimate in high faculty to student ratios, and can support the 'tutorial system' that really is a great mentoring tool. There are Cambridge faculty with very successful start-ups, but the whole environment is different than the US. Richard Friend's success in Cambridge, UK, like Alan Heeger's success in Santa Barbara, CA, is in an environment where the physics departments members of staff would cause most US university physics departments to cringe with envy.  

  •  To be fair, most universities that don't (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    sillia, infotech, Redfire

    satisfy your rule #5 expect the companies in their tech parks to be started by locals.  A great diary, thanks.

  •  Do you know the story of Richmond, Va.? (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Redfire, FG

    Eugene Trani became President of Virginia Commonwealth University  in 1990. Dr. Eugene P. Trani was appointed the fourth president of Virginia Commonwealth University on July 1, 1990. He also served as President and Chair of the Board of Directors of the VCU Health System and held a tenured appointment as Professor of History.

    During his VCU tenure, Dr. Trani also guided the development of “A Strategic Plan for the Future of Virginia Commonwealth University,” which produced significant organizational changes in programs and administration, including a comprehensive administrative streamlining report; a new framework for establishing interdisciplinary centers that combine VCU’s strengths in teaching, research, and service; a new faculty roles and rewards policy and a companion review process for VCU’s promotion and tenure policy; a master planning effort that incorporates new architectural guidelines into the development of the campuses in a way that complements their surroundings in the community; and a comprehensive technology plan developed in collaboration with area businesses for the entire institution.
    Among the strategic plan’s important areas of focus has been enhancing VCU’s growing importance to economic development in Virginia. Dr. Trani spearheaded the development of the Virginia Biotechnology Research Park, which has attracted the biotech industry to Virginia, serving as Chair of the Research Park Authority Board. The plan also brought the development of a new engineering school,
    Richmond Virginia has been transformed by the development of VCU and the Biotech Research Park.  It was a shambles before Trani came.  The new Engineering School upgraded the University so much.  In particular, the science departments now are all strong PhD granting departments which they were not before this.

    I have my reservations about biotech parks, etc, but the evidence is here for all to see.  This was an economic miracle.

    I was on the search committee that hired Trani.  I asked him to get us an engineering school and work with the community and he did.  I have never regretted it.

    An idea is not responsible for who happens to be carrying it at the moment. It stands or falls on its own merits.

    by don mikulecky on Sat Dec 14, 2013 at 10:31:20 AM PST

  •  Spot on (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    sillia, infotech, this just in

    You can't "hot house" a tech startup without the rest of the infrastructure. It doesn't take too many creationists in the the local schools to convince any rational technologist to scamper for the elevated geological features. Calling out the GBI to enforce a contract dispute as happened at GA'Tech isn't going to help either.

    Premature greed at the university level is a big problem - a startup might make a lot of money, both for the startup founders and the university - but most startups fail and most that survive don't make huge amounts of funds either. A university development office can tilt the odds either for or against the startup. Prematurely trying to maximize returns ensures that the tilt is strongly against the startup.

    A university can build the infrastructure, but most university faculty and administrators don't have the vision. It's scary to change.

    •  Agreed ! (0+ / 0-)

      But expanding upon the greed of some University administrators, at the expense of the primary mission of the University is worthy of a number of diaries......the growing trend where the university Tech Transfer Office no longer answers to science and engineering faculty, nor the University, but is its own separate entity is just symptomatic.
      You have succinctly summarized the massive scope of the problem. How to solve the problem ? Maybe we could start by forcing every University administrator to memorize chemistry professor Allen J. Bard's guest editorial in Chemical and Engineering News, Oct 11, 2010 - "It's Not The Money, Stupid!"

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