Alliance Blog

How Universities Support Community: It Depends

What is the role of a major University in the community and how does that change in relation to the shifting conditions within the community and the University? Over the past few weeks, I had several enlightening conversations about this topic with a range of stakeholders and the answers varied for each institution I spoke with. The short (unsatisfying) answer is: it depends. But the unique dynamics and variables driving the answers were super interesting, so I’ll share what I’ve learned with you and hopefully spark additional dialogue and investigation. 

Although I’ve thought about it before, the role of a University in the community became an actual question this summer when we decided to submit a proposal to the CalOSBA (Go-BIZ) Accelerate CA Hub Program that requires applicants to either be a University or to partner with one in order to receive up to $250K per year “to facilitate the transformation of invention to impact by accelerating the startup and growth of innovation-based firms” led by founders primarily from underserved communities and diverse backgrounds. As I read it, the RFP implied that the University was necessary because it would likely provide a high number of inventors (either from within the University or from the community it serves) and secondarily have the physical space, training resources, and other infrastructure to support the inventors as they received technical assistance (the preferred accelerant funded by the grant) also of importance to the grantors who stipulated a site tour would be required within the first year. Intuitively these are logical assertions but, based on what I’ve learned from working with Universities over the past few years, it didn’t quite match up with how I think Universities view their role in the community or the services they provide. The grant writers clearly wanted us to serve the broader community but I wasn’t sure how much support, if any, our SoCal-based Universities provide to inventors who aren’t already faculty, staff, or enrolled students. If Go-BIZ wanted to support inventors they’d just give the money directly to Universities, so clearly there was something I was missing about how we should approach the proposal.

To help educate myself and to resolve the dissonance between what “should be” and what I felt matched reality, I sought guidance from my two core committees of innovation leaders from all of the leading research universities in the region (all the UC’s, USC, SDSU, Caltech) plus engaged higher education institutions like CSU Long Beach, Cal State LA, and Loyola Marymount University who specifically were available to weigh in on this topic during a recent monthly committee call. As you can imagine, the perspectives varied in relation to their size, location, and focus. For the sake of brevity, I’ll use UC Irvine as a representative example of how the relationship with the community can evolve over time and in response to changing dynamics within the institution, the region, and beyond.

In 2014, UC Irvine was in a very different situation than they are today – their research budget, number of new ventures created, and reputation for high impact innovation was not great and in need of a boost. The school raised money, including a significant gift from the Beall Family Foundation, to build the Cove, a collaboration space and the home of UCI Applied Innovation (in 2019 renamed UCI Beall Applied Innovation or “BAI”) which became the center of gravity for collaboration between applied innovation on campus (eg IP translation/licensing, sponsored research, new venture creation/support) and the broader community. The Cove also has maker spaces, benches, wet labs, and offices leased to non-UCI startups, VCs, corporations, accelerators, and startup support organizations. Led by a Chief Innovation Officer (Errol Arkilic who was preceded by Richard Sudek) with deep industry experience and a collaborative orientation, BAI conveniently and effectively provides a single point of access to campus-based innovation. They also hosted the local SBDC to provide technical assistance to local small businesses.

Over the past ten years, UCI’s research budget, high-impact venture output, and reputation has dramatically improved which has driven a sharper focus of budget and resources to support the commercialization of high potential campus-based innovation and thus necessitated a pullback from funding external innovation such as the SBDC program that supported non-UCI startups. UCI continues to be a de facto hub of innovation in Orange County and continues to enable collaboration in the community but its role in the community has changed over time as it has evolved in pace with the needs of UCI while the OC innovation ecosystem has matured. For our grant, we were welcome to rent space at the Cove to host programs but there was no ‘home’ or programs at UCI specifically that we’d be able to utilize. That’s not a ding on UCI, their strategy is spot on, in my opinion, and they truly provide a shining model for other Universities (especially UC’s who have a sibling’s blueprint to follow). It’s just the reality that providing resources to local businesses in Orange County needs to go through a slightly different path.

At UC Riverside, the fundamental realities in their community are vastly different than UCI, and as such they have chosen a focus on workforce development which includes the community through their OASIS Accelerator and EPIC SBDC programs. Contrast that with USC’s constellation of independent and sometimes competing endowed centers of excellence which has required them to focus on building internal collaboration capacity. Meanwhile SDSU recently launched a partnership with Techstars to be a high-profile conduit for attracting and managing external innovation on campus which they feel is a direct benefit to the SDSU-based innovators. Nearby, UCSD recently opened their Design and Innovation Building that fosters cross-campus collaboration and has a fourth floor dedicated to entrepreneurship that welcomes the community. If you know about ASU’s omnipresent strategy and embrace of remote learning, it should be no surprise that they have almost no distinction between campus and community – their mission, as I interpret it, is to educate everyone, everywhere.

Perhaps I manifested this, but more likely by coincidence, a few weeks ago we were invited by UCLA Anderson to participate in a workshop whose primary question was “what role should UCLA have in the SoCal innovation ecosystem?” We brainstormed with successful entrepreneurs, venture investors, UCLA faculty and a few of us ecosystem organizations thrown in to the mix. Many of the attendees provided insights gained from working with leading institutions like Stanford, Harvard, and Berkeley who have world class innovation commercialization ecosystems built intentionally and to great effect. It became clear that UCLA is a lot more like USC than they’d like to admit – a constellation of internal innovation hubs with weak structural connectivity and minimal pathways for effective collaboration. There is no central point of access for the community nor significant infrastructure to pull the schools together, so it is no surprise that they have little capacity to support the broader community despite the strength of their individual programs and excellent ability to launch successful startups as well as commercialize their breakthrough research.

Armed with a more informed perspective, we submitted a grant proposal to CalOSBA that would enhance our SoCal Venture Pipeline program by providing 1:1 technical assistance to high potential founders so that they can become investor-ready and ultimately receive personal introductions to our network of VCs to help them fundraise. We focused on serving Orange County and the surrounding communities so we naturally partnered with UCI Beall Applied Innovation as well as CSU Long Beach’s Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship along with over a dozen other partners from the region. We were notified one week later that our proposal was not selected which was disappointing but I’m confident that decision reflects a mismatch with Go-BIZ’s goals and not due to the world-class partners we assembled who are very effective at serving their communities, just perhaps not in the exact way you’d expect.