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Questions for Dr. Alan Paau

Dr. Alan Paau, Cornell's new vice provost for technology transfer and economic development, was kind enough to sit down and answer some questions we had for him. As longtime readers of MetaEzra know, we are keenly interested in the role that Cornell plays in New York State's economy.

MetaEzra: You’ve been charged with not only leading Cornell’s technology transfer office, but also overseeing Cornell’s Office of Economic Development… do those two functions necessarily go hand in hand?

Alan Paau: The two functions do not necessarily go hand in hand but one can leverage technology (or more specifically, intellectual property rights such as patent rights, copyrights etc.) to strategically place them for regional economic development such that investment money may be attracted to the area to provide high-wage employment and eventually (and hopefully) generate wealth that come with the success of launching technology-based businesses.

ME: It seems that a lot of research that Cornell produces could easily be siphoned off to Boston, Silicon Valley, or the Research Triangle, and that the economic impact of Cornell’s research does not necessarily have to stay local.

AP: What you said above has been true. In fact, as of to date, more new tech-based businesses have been formed in California than in New York (especially upstate New York) because of the entrepreneurial investors available in California (Silicon Valley and San Diego areas). For Cornell technologies not to be siphoned off to more entrepreneurial areas such as Boston, Silicon Valley and San Diego, the upstate New York area has to provide incentives for these new businesses to "stay home". Possible incentives include "seed funds" and "matching funds" available from the state or local government. We are working on that now.

ME: Richard Lester, a professor at MIT, has written that, “Many universities are seeking to exploit their laboratory discoveries by patenting and licensing intellectual property to local firms. But often this is not the most important contribution. In addition to their own discoveries, universities can help to attract new human, knowledge, and financial resources from elsewhere... Another important indirect role is to serve as a public space for ongoing local conversations about the future direction of technologies and markets.” (http://web.mit.edu/ipc/publications/pdf/05-010.pdf).

Moreover, Sean Safford ’94, now a professor at the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business, has argued that a university must not just be a “fountain” of knowledge, but also a “forum”, connecting disparate actors already present in an economy to foster technological and economic development in the region.

Do you agree with these sentiments? How should a university balance technology transfer with the broader goals of economic development?

AP: I agree with both of the above 110%. Universities attract intellectuals of various types and skills - that's a broadly recognized reality. Universities do not only provide technological opportunities but also the necessary "human capital".

There is no need to balance technology transfer with economic development. They are not mutually exclusive but in fact very complementary in nature. The dedication to economic development often encourages various players to put the necessary resources to support technology transfer! I would actually say in some instances, they play on each other pretty well.

ME: I’ve heard anecdotes that venture capitalists often overlook the developments coming out of Cornell’s labs due to the difficulty of developing a business in Ithaca because it is far away from their offices. Is this a real issue that Cornell faces?

AP: That is very true. Although Ithaca is a very desirable college town with beautiful gorges and an attractive campus full of high intellects, its location (quite difficult to get to) and its cold winter do make it difficult to attract venture capitalists to invest in new businesses in Ithaca because they don't want to come to make the necessary "oversight" on their investment! Will you prefer to come to Ithaca in the dead of the winter when you can go to San Diego instead - especially if you control the money? As such, places like Ithaca do need to work harder and to also provide additional incentives. We are working of that and hopefully will succeed.

ME: A lot of the technologies that Cornell develops are genetically modified food and agricultural products. As you know, these products don’t always get the best press, especially internationally—is this a liability in terms of licensing these technologies?

AP: Genetically modified good or agricultural products are indeed not accepted in some countries. They are not a liability. They are just difficult to license out or to start businesses with. Hopefully in time when the irrational fear subsides, and the need for higher quality or nutritional food become recognized, they will be accepted.

ME: What can Cornell do to better raise money and invest in technologies that are being developed on campus? The Johnson School’s BR Ventures and the Technology Farm in Geneva seem like a good start, but what else have you seen across the country that could be adopted by Cornell?

AP: The BR Ventures, unfortunately so far has not focused on Cornell technologies. The Technology Farm is also challenged by the fact that agricultural based technologies do not generate "high margin" investment opportunities. Across the country, the successful "technology clusters" usually are based on medical and/or engineering technologies. Cornell has both of them - although they are hundreds of miles apart. But, we will work on bringing them together to give (1) early medical technologies from Weill better chances to be developed; and (2) the Ithaca region to benefit from Weill's potentially "higher profit margin" medical technologies.

ME: You will be spending around half of your time in New York City with the Weil Cornell Medical College, and the University is investing heavily in cross-campus linkages in biotechnology and the life sciences. Additionally, you come from a campus (UCSD) that is known for its emphasis on the life sciences. How do you envision the New York-Ithaca relationship in the future?

AP: First of all, UCSD has more than just life sciences. It has a very strong telecommunication and information technology complex. That's why San Diego has two significant technology clusters - one based on life sciences for biotechnology; and another one based on "high tech" that is computer and wireless telecommunications based. These two tech clusters account for more than 1,000 new companies formed in the last 15 years or so. In fact, the most successful "San Diego" home grown company is Qualcomm - the multi-billion company that brings you CDMA and started by two UCSD professors, Andrew Vertabi and Irvine Jacob (a Cornell alum, no less).

Cornell is investing heavily to bring the two campuses together for exactly the same reason - to marry the clinical expertise of Weill with the engineering and the basic science expertise of Ithaca to make Cornell technologies closer to real world uses. The synergism can be substantial if done properly. That's why I will be splitting time and efforts between the two campuses. Of course, I will have to over come some pretty significant logistical, operational, and cultural difference initially. But with the genuine support of the new president, Dr. David Skorton, and the two provosts (Biddy Martin - Provost of Academic Affairs in Ithaca and Tony Gotto - Provost of Health Affairs in Weill), I am optimistic that real progress can be made.

ME: In coming to Cornell, you are following Scott Emr (Director of Cornell’s new Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology) who is also coming from UCSD. Did you work with Scott out in California?

AP: Actually, I didn't know Scott Emr coming to Ithaca until after I accepted the challenge at Cornell. So, I am not sure who's following whom. In any case, it now turns out our wives know each other via some common friends doing charity work in the San Diego area! I don't know whether it is coincidental or just meant to be. While at UCSD, my office did manage a couple of technologies from Dr. Emr's laboratory.

ME: A hundred years ago, Upstate New York was one of the wealthiest and best-educated regions in the world. The Erie Canal was the 19th century equivalent to Silicon Valley. But now Upstate is one of the most economically depressed parts of the country and young, highly-educated people are fleeing the area in mass.

AP: The changes that happen to Upstate New York are just reflection of the changes in the world. As American's economic output necessarily shifted to become more intellectual (because we are no longer competitive in manufacturing etc - can we out manufacture countries with lower labor costs like Mexico, China and India?), the reliance of geographical features such as waterways etc. becomes less important. Intellectual based industries are highly "portable" and can be moved easily - unless upstate New York provides incentives for they to stay. Young and highly-education people are fleeing the area because they can't find good jobs. If we can retain intellectual based industries in the area, these people will stay.

ME: Stanford essentially fostered the creation of Silicon Valley. What can Cornell do to jump-start growth in the surrounding New York State areas? With presumably lots of research dollars up for grabs in nanotech and life sciences, will Cornell become an incubator for new R&D ventures near campus?

AP: First thing first, Cornell has to begin fostering a technology-based entrepreneurial culture (Cornell is well recognized for it financial-based and consumer product-based entrepreneurs, but not tech-based) on campus - from the professors to the post-docs to the students. The message sent out by the academic leadership can do a lot to help with that. Humbly, I will also say that a good technology transfer program can also help. We will be doing a lot to "educate" and promote the understanding and the importance of intellectual property. With incentives, we can all work together to make Cornell an incubator for new ventures near campus.

ME: Finally an easy one: After living in Southern California, how are you adapting to the cold?

AP: The last couple days have been tough - but I did my post-doc in Madison, Wisconsin. So, cold weather is not exactly a total stranger to me. Although I do miss Southern California, New York does offer some different attractions!

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on February 07, 2007 (#)

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