Stephen E. Cross was named Georgia Tech’s executive vice president for research in 2010. In this role, he is responsible for the Institute’s $655 million-per-year research program, which is ranked among the largest of U.S. colleges and universities without a medical school.
The research enterprise is being reconstructed to focus on twelve core research areas that will both support existing Georgia Tech research sponsors and facilitate the expansion of industrially supported research.
In this interview, Cross discusses Georgia Tech’s research strategy and what the development of a Georgia Tech-driven innovation ecosystem could mean for sponsors, industry partners, faculty, and students—as well as the state, nation, and global economy.
Click on a question below to view the response.
- What is Georgia Tech’s research strategy?
- Why do we need a research strategy?
- What do you see as your role in this?
- We hear a lot of about the importance of interdisciplinary research. How do you define this and what are its benefits?
- How did you get to the twelve core research areas?
- So the purpose is really to make it easier for the outside world to work with us?
- Many areas are supported by an Interdisciplinary Research Institute (IRI). What is an IRI supposed to be and how does it contribute?
- What’s your thinking on giving researchers a place to take risks?
- Why is it important to secure the support of industry?
- How does industry benefit from working with us?
- Could you talk about the concurrent processes for conducting research and translating it under this new research strategy? How is that different from how things are traditionally done at universities?
- Why is economic development so woven into the research strategy? Are we talking about that more than we used to?
- How does research fit into experiential learning—an important theme in the Georgia Tech strategic vision and plan?
- So, does this show that research isn’t separate from the educational component of Georgia Tech?
- People are starting to use the term “innovation ecosystem.” How do you define that?
- What progress has been made with regard to the innovation ecosystem?
- How does commercialization fit into what we are doing? Shouldn’t we just be doing great scholarly research and publishing papers and not worrying about whether this work is ever used?
- What has Georgia Tech done so far to advance the commercialization/startup process?
- What are some of the benefits faculty members can look forward to as a result of how you are changing the research structure on campus?
- Are there other high-level things that faculty members should be excited about?
- How can we provide companies with an advantage over their competition?
- Let’s talk about basic research and the importance of federal funding. How are these elements important to our strategy, which places a lot of emphasis on industry?
- So does this emphasis on commercialization of our technology and research also benefit the federal funding side?
- What do you think sets Georgia Tech apart from our competitors?
- Why do companies partner with Georgia Tech?
- Five years from now, what would success of this initiative look like?
- Is there anything else you’d like to add?
The research strategy has three objectives. The first is pursuing transformative research. We want to make it even easier to pursue research that is game-changing and leading edge, and have people asking, “What does Georgia Tech think?” To do this, we need to find new ways for faculty, students, and post-docs to explore and solve exciting problems by working together across traditional academic disciplines.
The second objective is strengthening collaborative partnerships with industry, government, and nonprofits. If we better understand the problems and needs of our partners, we will do an even better job of developing solutions that will have a meaningful impact. We need to be viewed as leaders who define grand challenges and engage communities in collaborative problem solving.
The third objective is maximizing the economic and societal impact of our research. Accelerating the maturation and transition of our research results into real-world use is important and fundamentally related to the first two objectives.
This strategy involves the entire Georgia Tech research enterprise: the colleges and schools, the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI), the Enterprise Innovation Institute (EI2), our contracting and licensing operations, our development and support functions, and our Interdisciplinary Research Institutes. We strive to be a research environment that is powered by ideas, led by faculty, energized by students, and supported by professionals as “one Georgia Tech.”
What the strategy does is describe how the entire research enterprise can work together to contribute to the fulfillment and implementation of Georgia Tech’s strategic vision and plan, which was published in 2010. Georgia Tech is a great place, but when the various parts of the Institute work together and support common goals, we are even better! More details, including an operational plan that details specific actions under way, are available online.
If Georgia Tech were a Broadway play, our faculty and students would be the stars on stage; our deans, school chairs, and Interdisciplinary Research Institute directors would be the directors and coaches; and I’d be the stage manager behind the curtain trying to help make everything work out okay. So my main role, and that of my team, is to support those who do the research. We are behind the scenes helping make others successful. I also have an important role in communicating and marketing the impact of our research to various stakeholders, including sponsors and alumni. In addition, I serve as an internal advocate for faculty and students, and sometimes I challenge us to do more than we may think possible. I am always trying to find new ways we can all work as “one Georgia Tech.”
We hear a lot of about the importance of interdisciplinary research. How do you define this and what are its benefits?
An interdisciplinary pursuit can be contrasted with a multidisciplinary one where two or more existing disciplines are involved in achieving some outcome. For instance, the practice of architecture is multidisciplinary. If you want to design a building, you need an architect, but you also need an interior designer, a mechanical engineer, an electrical engineer, and a civil engineer. Interdisciplinary research occurs when two or more fields come together and new knowledge is created, possibly defining a new field of study. It is the intersection of these fields at the boundaries of their knowledge that creates new ways of thinking about problems and new ways to solve them. Interdisciplinary Research Institutes (IRIs) like the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience (IBB) and the Georgia Tech Manufacturing Institute (formerly known as the Manufacturing Research Center) were created in the late 1980s and early 1990s to provide intellectual crossroads where different academic pursuits could merge to explore and solve problems. They provide an environment where interaction between traditional academic disciplines is natural—and expected. We want to have an environment that supports and facilitates interdisciplinary research because of our quest to be global leaders and to pursue game-changing ideas. I might add that, today, we also stress the importance of translational research that is focused on moving promising research results from the laboratory into real-world use. Some of my colleagues in chemistry and biochemistry describe our overall strategic approach to research as use-inspired, that is, one that integrates fundamental and translational research in interdisciplinary ways. This is well articulated by Donald Stokes in a book entitled Pasteur’s Quadrant.
How did you get to the twelve core research areas?
Shortly after I was selected for this position in the spring of 2010, I was looking at a website that listed many of the centers, labs, and groups across Georgia Tech. There was not much rhyme or reason to how they were grouped, and many were not even listed. Unless you had intimate knowledge about Georgia Tech’s internal structure, it did not make much sense. Given my role in communicating and marketing our research capabilities, I wanted a better way to describe our research to the outside world.
So, with help from the associate deans of research and school chairs, we constructed a master list of all the centers, labs, groups, and institutes. A list of around 300 dictated that we group many into similar thematic areas. For instance, in bioengineering and bioscience alone, there are fifty centers, groups, and labs; fifteen of those, by their own choice, are affiliated with and supported by the Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience. Similarly, twenty-two groups, labs, and centers are affiliated with the Georgia Tech Manufacturing Institute.
Out of this distillation process came the current listing of twelve core research areas -- a faithful and easy-to-understand summary of our research strengths. It is not cast in concrete and can change when it makes sense to describe it differently. But this list makes it easier for the outside community to understand and to navigate our research enterprise. The areas map roughly to strategic markets and important areas for the state of Georgia and other sponsors. Since we have taken this approach, we have received very positive feedback from inside and outside of Georgia Tech.
Establishing the core research areas has created a more intuitive means of identifying our thought leadership in key research areas, and makes it easier to find out more about research at Tech. Since publishing our new web pages, we have received several comments from the external community such as “I did not know you were doing that.” However, the current listing of core research areas isn’t intended to be prescriptive or all-inclusive; I fully expect it to evolve over time. I invite faculty members to request that their research group, lab, or center be added to the current descriptions or to share ideas for better mappings. If we begin to build critical mass across Georgia Tech in a new area, we’ll either introduce a new core research area to accommodate that, or we’ll figure out a way to modify a current title accordingly.
Many areas are supported by an Interdisciplinary Research Institute (IRI). What is an IRI supposed to be and how does it contribute?
An Interdisciplinary Research Institute is a research organization that includes representation from across Georgia Tech and that administratively reports to the executive vice president for research. Each IRI is led by a research-active faculty member who is a thought leader in a core research area and is committed to supporting faculty and students doing research in that area. IRIs serve as intellectual crossroads for faculty and students, where interdisciplinary work is encouraged and supported. They blur the lines between traditional academic disciplines and contribute to the Georgia Tech culture of collaboration. This is important because when we collaborate, we come up with even better, and more creative, solutions to tough problems. Additionally, IRIs provide laboratory and shared administrative support, as well as new collaborative research opportunities, to faculty-led research centers and groups that elect to be affiliated with the IRI.
Another increasingly important role for the IRIs is to facilitate the accelerated maturation and transition of research results into use. The Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) and the Enterprise Innovation Institute (EI2) are vital in this regard and are working closely with the IRIs. In fact, GTRI leads the core research area of national security while providing crucial support for many of the other IRIs.
As part of our strategy, we want to encourage risk-taking and pursuit of innovative ideas in research. Seed grants are one way we help nurture those ideas. They provide support for initial research and to obtain results that may be compelling to a sponsor. They also allow us to explore unconventional ideas without fear of failure.
My office also provides support for large proposals. For example, we have staff that can provide graphic support and professional editing for large proposals being submitted to the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and other agencies. My office, in collaboration with the Office of the Provost, manages the Fund for Innovation in Research and Education (FIRE) to provide this support. Many of the IRIs, as well as large research centers, also have seed grant funding as part of their budgets.
From the faculty member’s standpoint, industry-supported work provides another potential source of sponsored revenue and access to interesting problems upon which to base research.
Increasing the volume of industry work is critical because we may not be able to count on the future stability of government-supported research. We need to diversify our funding base. I have set a goal to double our volume of industrial research by 2017. Currently, industry-funded research represents about 14 percent of our total annual research expenditures.
I must stress that there are many dimensions to what we mean by “industry support.” It spans everything from existing relationships with large companies, to establishment of research partnerships with companies with which we have not worked, to the accelerated creation and support of startups.
We have strategic partnerships with many major corporations. These companies have many reasons for engaging with Georgia Tech. We must never forget that our main mission is education and that industry is very interested in hiring our students. Traditional education models are evolving. Expanding student opportunities beyond the classroom and into the lab is another way we can leverage our research enterprise to support education and increase our appeal to industry. An excellent example of this is the GE-sponsored Smart Grid Challenge in which Georgia Tech supports a venue where student teams compete to explore disruptive concepts. This model is increasingly popular with companies, and it provides a valuable team-based experiential learning opportunity for students. One way we can increase the volume of industry work while supporting the Institute’s education mission is by providing more of these competitions and hands-on research and learning opportunities.
Industry also wants access to new technology and innovations, sometimes through direct support of research, sometimes through their investment in the companies we help create and nurture, and sometimes through the direct services provided to them. So we wish to increase the amount of research we do for industry and also the services we can provide to them.
Another important area is in growing the next generation of companies through our startup acceleration programs. Some of the early initiatives pursued under Georgia Tech’s strategic plan have focused on innovation, including the Georgia Tech Integrated Program for Startups (GT:IPS) and Flashpoint, which both provide startup education for potential company formation. Through these initiatives coupled with the recently established Innovation Corps program, where Georgia Tech serves as one of three national sites to support commercialization of National Science Foundation-funded research, we have participated in programs that have created more than 100 new companies through the first three quarters of 2012. Georgia Tech is truly helping to nurture and grow new companies while providing existing companies easier access to the exciting research taking place here.
Could you talk about the concurrent processes for conducting research and translating it under this new research strategy? How is that different from how things are traditionally done at universities?
Technology transition is too often a slow and painful process. It does not follow a linear, unidirectional, and sequential path; though that is the way support processes have been designed and implemented. We are working hard to change this. The Georgia Tech Integrated Program for Startups (GT:IPS) and the new Industry@Tech website are good first steps. Being the best at translational research and technology transition is consistent with our Georgia Tech strategic vision and our research strategy, in that we expect innovation and entrepreneurism to be embedded in everything we do. It is obvious that we all truly want our work to have more economic and societal impact. What is perhaps unique in our new approach is the intentional organization of professional support teams involving industry contracting, licensing, commercialization, and communication from across the Institute to support research sponsorship opportunities in the core research areas.
Why is economic development so woven into the research strategy? Are we talking about that more than we used to?
Georgia Tech was created to support economic development in the state of Georgia, and, today, research universities are recognized as key elements in regional innovation ecosystems, which are vital to economic development. In this regard, we have several competitive advantages at Georgia Tech, including our state-sponsored economic development functions in the Enterprise Innovation Institute (EI2). Additionally, the Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC)—incidentally the first and largest university-based incubator in the country—is consistently rated as one of the top ten facilitators of startup companies. We have focused recently on startup acceleration as part of our overall Georgia Tech strategic vision. We now seek to link each core research area to economic development opportunities, while increasing our industry sponsorship and opening new facilities like the Carbon Neutral Energy Solutions Building to directly support industry work.
It is also significant that our students are seeking more opportunities to engage in entrepreneurial activities. The InVenture Prize, the Convergence Innovation Competition, and Georgia Tech Research and Innovation Conference, in part, address this. Companies like GE Energy have sponsored competitions with cash awards for student teams exploring disruptive concepts.
Simply put, Georgia Tech has always had a focus on industry and economic development. We seek to grow our impact in ways that directly support the research enterprise and maximize the benefit Georgia Tech brings to our region, state, nation, and the world.
How does research fit into experiential learning—an important theme in the Georgia Tech strategic vision and plan?
If we take the Georgia Tech vision seriously—educating the technological leaders of the world—we need to ensure that our students have an opportunity to learn about leadership, teamwork, and real-world problem solving. Our cooperative education program is a key part of this. The research enterprise is also used as part of our objective to increase the level of industry support to directly benefit experiential learning for our students. We are continuing to explore new ways in which we can provide unique learning opportunities, such as an undergraduate course in entrepreneurism and a possible co-op experience in startup company creation.
They are intimately linked. We do research because it is reputationally important (helping attract the best faculty, students, and post-docs) and because of its importance in economic development. But, of course, research is also key to enhancing our educational role. Our main product is, and always will be, well-educated, highly skilled students. It is significant that this focus remains connected to our history, specifically the initial shops and foundries of Georgia Tech. When Georgia Tech was created, students worked in those shops and foundries in parallel with their coursework—as is the case today with the research many of our students do in campus laboratories.
An ecosystem consists of many different organizations (companies, government entities, nonprofits, universities, technical colleges, etc.) each with different goals that are aligned to do something for the greater good. The greater good in this case is to provide an environment in which innovation can thrive, while leading to successful commercialization activity and societal benefit in this region and beyond.
I was privileged to serve on a state commission in 2011 that explored how we can bring more economic development impact to Georgia. Since that time, President Peterson has been very active with the Metro Area Chamber of Commerce and Georgia Department of Economic Development in explaining Georgia Tech’s key role and in helping create advocacy for Advanced Technology Development Center ATDC and other programs at Tech. Companies like NCR, Panasonic, Coca-Cola, and AT&T are increasing their work with Tech as a direct result of our role in helping lead our regional innovation ecosystem. Other countries have taken note. The Republic of Korea has entered into an agreement with Tech to help incubate companies in Technology Square. Our Georgia Tech-Lorraine campus and its regional partners recently dedicated the Lafayette Institute to pursue the same kind of opportunities in Europe.
The Georgia Research Alliance (GRA) also plays a key role in our innovation ecosystem. GRA co-funds chairs through its Eminent Scholar program. There are more than seventy-five Eminent Scholars across five universities in Georgia; more than half of them at Georgia Tech. GRA also funds infrastructure for equipment and laboratories, supports our Georgia Tech-focused incubator (Venture Lab), and provides funding (via a competitive selection process) for startups from Georgia Tech research. GRA is a very important partner in our research strategy, and we are grateful for its ongoing support.
How does commercialization fit into what we are doing? Shouldn’t we just be doing great scholarly research and publishing papers and not worrying about whether this work is ever used?
We should absolutely be doing great scholarly research—and we are! This scholarly work includes significant contributions to innovation literature. We find great value in having a balanced portfolio of basic and applied research, but we shouldn’t forget that Georgia Tech was created with an economic development mission. We want to see that the research with clear market potential gets to companies that will commercialize it, and we want to continue fully supporting the creation of spinoff companies—many based on our research results. Some of the great research taking place at Georgia Tech can be quickly commercialized, while other research may spend many years in development before it is market-ready.
After the strategic plan was published, we created strategic initiatives to look at what we could do to move us closer to our vision. One of the efforts was to experiment with accelerated startup formations, and that resulted in the Georgia Tech Integrated Program for Startups (GT:IPS), where faculty members can license their intellectual property much more quickly to create a startup company. Another example is Flashpoint, a startup accelerator for our region. Georgia Tech also won a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to be among a select group of universities to host the Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program. I-Corps is an accelerator for NSF grantees at universities around the country.
In the past, sixteen or seventeen companies had been created from Georgia Tech annually. Just last year, Georgia Tech participated in projects that supported the formation of more than 100 new companies. They are not all based on Georgia Tech research, but with a combination of Flashpoint, I-Corps, GT:IPS, and other activities already in place, we have increased, by a factor of five, the number of startup companies being formed in our region. We have also attracted venture capital from parts of the country that have never before invested in the Southeast.
What are some of the benefits faculty members can look forward to as a result of how you are changing the research structure on campus?
We are already providing support for preparation of large proposals and making it easier for faculty from across the entire campus to engage in larger and more diverse opportunities that may be difficult to pursue individually. We are also making improvements to our research intranet to automate some administrative functions. Additionally, we hope to make more use of equipment cost centers that will help sustain our research infrastructure. For the faculty doing the research, this will provide easier access to the kind of equipment they need, and we will be able to refresh that equipment and keep it leading-edge, allowing us to provide a competitive advantage to our faculty.
Faculty members must be well supported in conducting their research, we also want to ensure they have a platform where they can be positioned nationally and internationally as recognized leaders in their fields. Part of the support will be what we do in Washington, D.C., and with the state government. Creating platforms for thought leaders in our fields of scholarship will also help with all of the federal funding agencies, and industry. We hope they will be asking Georgia Tech for advice when they think that something needs to be done as a national initiative.
Companies gain a competitive advantage by hiring students who are really, really good. The Georgia Tech culture is one where students work very hard and are creative problem solvers. By hiring our students, companies have an immediate competitive advantage. Just take a look at the high percentage of Georgia Tech alumni that have executive positions in high-tech companies. Many of them credit their success to the real-world skills and work ethic learned at Georgia Tech. Industry also has access to some of the most creative minds in the world through our faculty. As we turn our attention more to meeting industry needs, companies can work with faculty and students to explore disruptive ideas—either through direct support for student projects, by licensing, or investment in companies incubated through Georgia Tech.
Let’s talk about basic research and the importance of federal funding. How are these elements important to our strategy, which places a lot of emphasis on industry?
Fundamental research is focused on discovery and understanding. Our culture is driven by use-inspired research where we blend science and engineering in very effective interdisciplinary ways. The federal government, through the National Science Foundation and many other federal agencies, is the leading funder of basic research. Increasingly, their programs are requiring a plan for how basic research will transition into commercial use. We have a distinct advantage because we do more than describe such transition; we live and breathe it!
So does this emphasis on commercialization of our technology and research also benefit the federal funding side?
Most of the new industries in the United States, for instance, the aerospace and Internet industries, had roots in federally funded research. Federal funding will continue to be the fuel that powers the fundamental research upon which the industries of the future will be based. Georgia Tech will remain competitive, and we will win our fair share of federal funding.
I believe it is Georgia Tech’s culture that combines a use-inspired approach with collegiality and hard work. We have exceptional facilities, faculty, students, and staff. We innovate in everything we do—whether it is with educational approaches such as the Threads Program in the College of Computing or the Center for Music Technology in the College of Architecture. More recent examples are the Center for 21st Century Universities, our Interdisciplinary Research Institutes such as the Institute for Electronics and Nanotechnology and the Institute for People and Technology, and startup acceleration programs such as Flashpoint.
We are also being bolder and more aggressive in encouraging all of Georgia Tech to work together as “one Georgia Tech” on our research strategy, and we are providing more thought leadership to our regional innovation ecosystem. We are executing these things in a systematic way, and our efforts are gaining national and international attention. We are developing a unique ability to break down traditional academic barriers, which makes assembling interdisciplinary teams much easier. Industry partners have told us that our collaborative culture and willingness to work with them to solve tough problems is very different from what they see at other leading research universities.
Georgia Tech is producing students who are future leaders and real-world thinkers, passionate about solving problems and mentored by faculty who are at the top of their game. We continue to build the best facilities, and we are increasingly using innovative contracts to provide streamlined access to intellectual property and the know-how behind it.
Five years from now, Georgia Tech should have a more diversified sponsorship base, and have doubled its level of industry-sponsored research. We should also have more facilities around the perimeter of campus where industry can work with us and engage with students. We will have an integrated industry relations team providing unparalleled service to our industry partners, and we’ll be regarded as one of the country’s most industry-friendly research universities. Additionally, we will be recognized as the best in the world for use-inspired and translational research in our core research areas.
I’m confident that the strategic vision will become reality as long as we continue to develop a professional support structure to help faculty develop large proposals, access state-of-the-art facilities, complete the administrative requirements associated with many research contracts, and move their research from the lab to the real-world. I believe that Georgia Tech will be the envy of competing research universities. Our embrace of the “one Georgia Tech” culture of interdisciplinary collaboration will make us a more attractive research partner for both government and industry.
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