Coming Down From The Mesa To Boost Innovation

Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, November 30, 2015

Rory McElroy has come to UC San Diego in the body of Paul Roben — both are true Irish superstars.

Roben is the new associate vice chancellor for innovation and commercialization — which in startup/entrepreneurship speak means he is going to bring the university’s involvement in the community, its commitment to expanding and enhancing the tech transfer office, its support of campuswide integration of students, faculty and innovation — kicking and screaming into the 21st century. And I say bravo!

Roben came to California 25 years ago, worked at Scripps as a graduate student and got a post doc at UCSD. He also started a company — eight years of effort and great science — but it ran out of money.

He went back to Ireland, worked for the government in their tech transfer efforts to create an interface between the academic and the private sector (albeit with modesty, he says it was quite successful) and then he came back to Salk and finally back to UCSD. So Roben certainly has the scars and experience to run this program.

But be careful what you wish for. You might get it. Roben has to knit together a large variety of special interests, from the regents to the professors to the students to the funding sources — all in the service of and in the hunt for innovation and commercialization of BHAGs — big, hairy, audacious goals.

“My job is to create an environment where smart people can innovate,” says Roben. And he is no small thinker. He says UCSD can be as good and as well-known in this area as Stanford.

I pressed him politely about the “perception” of the university and the ease with which both entrepreneurs and investors can do business with them, and he was both charming and adamant — “that will change.”

And it is clear that perception is critical. UCSD is changing and Roben needs to stand on the rooftop and tell that story. He believes that a key part of that is the education of the constituents, from faculty to undergraduates

His first initiative is to create a certificate program in entrepreneurship, a formal and rigorous program across all the silos on the campus. Roben feels that many of his flock do not know what is available as a resource.

(Note: Rule No. 217: It’s what you don’t know that you don’t know that will kill you.)

And Roben deeply understands that it is not only what you know but also who you know. The power of the networks. He is committed to expanding those for participants. He wants to engage not only rigorous academics, but also some of the “been there, done that” gang, and also add in our existing companies. Students need the entire gamut.

“My office is there to support what already exists, not to replicate, but then also to expand the offerings — and then to socialize across the entire community — in collaboration with the other universities — and yes, finally, to explore and possibly bring a downtown UCSD campus to life.” That’s an idea that Mary Walshok, associate vice chancellor for public programs and dean of extension, advanced 20 years ago with no success. But you know the rule — don’t discount time and timing. And now is that time.

As an example of a pop-up class, Roben brought some ex-Pixar employees to teach the students how to tell a story. Wow, story telling is critical in the entrepreneurship game.

And now to the elephant in the room. Roben would say “we are open for business and doing business in a different way” — which means the tech transfer office is now going to be hosting afternoon tea and crumpet sessions on a nice chintz couch with a lovely wool throw-blanket to keep you warm. Welcome to the future.

Roben has strong backing for his plan. Both Chancellor Pradeep Khosla and the University of California President Janet Napolitano are hard over on entrepreneurship and innovation, and UCSD is determined to be a major force in this arena. He is getting people together in the same room to talk to each other (how’s that for a novel concept), and it is working. The mother ship is slowly turning around.

And finally his overarching theme is ecosystem. No man, nor university, is an island. “We need to come down from the Mesa,” said Roben. This simple sentence could not have occurred five years ago, but it is being said now. And our city, our entire community will be better for it.

Rule No. 445

If you can lead, they will follow.

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