Higher education needs to strengthen its role as an economic driver and innovation leader, West Virginia University President Jim Clements said at a recent symposium sponsored by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

Clements appeared on a panel entitled “Clustering for 21st Century Prosperity” to discuss how research and innovation are key to finding solutions to many of today’s issues, including energy, the economy, health care, education, the environment, technology and more. Other panelists at the Washington, D.C. event were Ashley Stevens, Association of University Technology Managers and Boston University; Aris Melissaratos, Johns Hopkins University; and Brian Darmody, Association of University Research Parks.

Clements noted that universities are models for innovation clusters that can drive the economy, giving three examples: a technology transfer model that leads to companies around new discoveries; location-specific research that spawns clusters and partnerships around regional strengths; and targeted niche innovations that develop clusters.

He cited Protea Bioscience, a company that started from WVU faculty research, grew in WVU’s incubator and now is a global business under the leadership of CEO Steve Turner, as an example of the technology transfer model. The company was founded in 2002, based around research on novel ways to identify proteins. Its relationship with the University remains, but has expanded to include multiple technology and business investors.

West Virginia’s natural resources – coal, timber, gas – provide the springboard for the second type of cluster based on location, he said. The Advanced Energy Initiative, WVU’s focused research response to America’s energy needs in fossil fuels, the environment, sustainability and energy policy, is one way the University is effectively leveraging the model. A successful and growing partnership with the federal government’s National Energy Technology Laboratory that includes WVU, Virginia Tech, Carnegie Mellon and University of Pittsburgh is an important example of the establishment of an innovation cluster around the topic of energy.

WVU’s biometrics initiative is an example of the third cluster involving innovation. Its roots trace back to 1990, when the FBI approached the University about creating educational programs in forensic science and biometric systems in anticipation of the growing need for graduates with these backgrounds. Subsequently, WVU founded a NSF Industry/University Cooperative Research Center addressing biometrics.

The Center for Identification Technology Research, or CITeR, led by Dr. Larry Hornak and Dr. Bojan Cukic of the Lane Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering at WVU, is among the most successful multi-university IUCRC’s, with more than 20 affiliates and collaborations with faculty at more than a dozen other universities.

The collaborative model has enabled CITeR to serve as a virtual interface to a broad base of national faculty and student talent with a focus on innovation. Affiliates have direct access to precompetitive stage research, interdisciplinary faculty teams, and a broad spectrum of research labs. The affiliates also have opportunities for communications with government agencies and commercial companies, including opportunities to team on proposals in response to government funding initiatives.

“In any of these three models, as well as others for creating new clusters, universities have important roles to play,” Clements said.

Charles Wessner, director of Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the National Academies, called the discussion “unique and engaging” and thanked Clements and the other panelists for their contributions.

“Your presentation was a significant addition to both the quality and scope of the meeting deliberations,” Wessner said, noting the usefulness of the discussion for national policy development and exposition.

A report will be developed based on the conference presentations, he said, with the goal of a better understanding of cluster development, the challenges they face and the policy measures needed to grow clusters and he jobs they create.

Senior officials from the White House, Department of Energy, Department of Commerce, other federal agencies, U.S. National Laboratories, congressional staff and others joined higher education leaders at the day-long summit. Other WVU attendees included Jay Cole, chief of staff; Mary Bowman, coordinator of congressional relations; and Russ Lorince, director of economic development.



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