Patrick Gaughan arrived in Lowell loaded with questions. He was three weeks into his job at The University of Akron School of Law, as executive director of the Innovation Practice Center.
By the end of the symposium, he knew.
Gaughan was among 250 symposium attendees from 80 colleges and universities across the U.S., Canada and India who gathered to discuss a hot issue in higher education – how to take the plentiful ideas that germinate on college campuses to market, and how to knock down cultural and environmental barriers to making it happen.
Under headers of ecosystems, curriculum, commercialization, and trends and topics, groups gathered June 10-12 to share ideas and spark solutions.
“We aren’t here to talk down to you from the podium,” said Raj Melville, executive director of Deshpande Foundation, to a roomful of attendees at the June 10 welcome reception
at the Mark and Elisia Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center on North Campus. Desh Deshpande addressed the group as “250 self-selected leaders.”
Entrepreneurship, he said, not only creates wealth and security for individuals, but jobs for graduates. And it empowers a new workforce no longer tied to a single employer for life.
As testament to its popularity, the symposium drew 100 more people than it did last year, as well as sponsorships and a superstar keynote speaker in Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan, whom Time magazine dubbed “one of the 10 best college presidents.” She was also one of the co-chairs of the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship, appointed in 2010 by President Obama.
“The re-imagined future is happening now,” Coleman said during her keynote address Wednesday morning.
She took the reins of University of Michigan just as the bottom fell out of the region’s economy. A million jobs vanished, Detroit crumbled and institutions perished. The place that was once “the Silicon Valley of its time” saw 15 percent unemployment at its worst.
“Out of adversity came new thinking,” said Coleman, a petite bundle of energy who will retire at the end of June. Entrepreneurship was an avenue “to prepare our graduates for economic survival. ... We had to become the innovators we were teaching our students to be.”
She said the university had to become “less insular” and “a catalyst for deeper connections with industry.” The University of Michigan removed institutional barriers to student ownership of intellectual property, added entrepreneurship to curriculums and “developed a vibrant, campuswide ecosystem.”
“Universities are brimming with ideas and talent,” she reminded the assembled.
“It didn’t happen overnight,” Coleman said, but now “one in seven Michigan students participate in some form of entrepreneurial classes and activity.” It cuts across science, law, the arts. There are 64 graduate and 37 undergraduate entrepreneurial courses offered.
Six years ago, 1,000 students proposed business ideas; the number skyrocketed to 5,300 this year. She said students see “the importance of doing good, not just doing well.”
Coleman told of one student who developed low-cost electric warming blankets for premature babies and found a way to subsidize them for the Third World.
“Students get to thinking, what is a problem I could solve?” she said.
MIT School of Engineering’s Associate Dean for Innovation Vladimir Bulovic delivered Wednesday evening’s keynote address.
In welcoming the attendees the previous night, UMass Lowell Executive Vice Chancellor Jacqueline Moloney recalled the university’s re-emergence. “Seven years ago, we were facing the same thing a lot of institutions were,” she said.
Facilities were out of date and enrollment was stagnant. Chancellor Marty Meehan brought “a laser-beam focus,” she said, when he came and he said, “We are going to pursue excellence in everything we do.”
Moloney compared it to an entrepreneur’s spirit. “Seven years later, you can’t imagine the change this university has gone through,” she said, touting new facilities, a 40 percent increase in enrollment, a rise of 63 points in SAT scores and recognition from national publications.
UMass Lowell’s Vice Provost for Research Julie Chen
noted that the welcoming gathering was taking place in a building named for alumnus Mark Saab and his wife, Elisia.
“Mark Saab was an engineering graduate who dreamed up a new, ultra-thin kind of medical tubing,” she said.
, associate vice chancellor of entrepreneurship and economic development and an organizer of the symposium, was pleased with the response and the turnout.
“I can’t stop myself from grinning as I look around the room,” he said.
“What I got out of this is pretty unbelievable,” said Gaughan Thursday morning, following a fireside chat with Chancellor Meehan. “It attracted a great group and there were things that came up that weren’t even on my radar. I’m leaving with a stack of notes, an information overload. But it’s been wonderful.”