Helping Universities Create Value Through Innovation

U. of Virginia

W. Mark Crowell
May 19, 2014

Last week, W. Mark Crowell, who is 59 and has worked in university innovation for a quarter-century, left his post as founding executive director of U.Va. Innovation and associate vice president for research at the University of Virginia, after four years there. He spoke with The Chronicle’s Taylor Harvey about the value of such work. An edited version of that interview follows.

Q. What exactly do you do as an innovation director?

A. I think of myself as an orchestra conductor. My job is to bring the different parts that work in an innovation enterprise together, and find what we don’t have, and get them on the same page of the music.

We look to infuse innovation and entrepreneurship throughout the curriculum and our research enterprise. In the outside world, we look to identify partners with deep pockets, or domain or business-development expertise, who can work with us to get early-stage research discoveries on the pathway toward a market-based use.

Q. Can you give me an example of such a partnership?

A. AstraZeneca, a top drug company, has a program in cardiovascular research. Together we find researchers at UVa to work with AstraZeneca scientists to carry out a program that is more focused on mutual needs and capabilities. It’s not just the university saying, "This is what we want to do. Will you please pay for it?"

Q. Without an innovation director, do universities have any idea of the potential income they’re sitting on?

A. I’d like to broaden your question and talk about the potential value they are sitting on. How do you put a value on the scientists who are coming in with UVa scientists to identify real problems or challenges? For our faculty to have access to research material and research questions that otherwise we may not know about? How does that translate into reputation and rating value for the university?

Not to mention that we are also seeing start-up companies we are creating going out into the public and creating jobs, attracting investment, paying taxes, buying and renting space. The economic and value-creation impact of innovation is pretty significant, beyond the issue of how much licensing revenue comes to the universities.

Q. Why are you stepping down now?

A. Nothing here prompted me to leave; other things catalyzed the introspection that led to the decision. I want to do one more really big thing in my innovation career, and a number of opportunities are percolating.

I think people assume when you leave that it signals something isn’t going right, but we’ve had such success at UVa. My wife’s mother used to say, "Darlin’, leave the party when it’s at it’s best," and, in a way, that feels like what I’m doing.