The University of Washington is a world-renowned institution. The school most recently finished No. 20 worldwide in the 2014 Academic Ranking of World Universities, while the new Times Higher Education rankings had the UW ranked No. 26.
But despite all the world-class research and bright minds coming together on campus, the UW doesn’t quite have a reputation as an entrepreneurial hub — a place where innovation is fostered throughout every department, and where the next great startup idea makes it out of the dorm rooms and science labs into the real world.
That’s exactly what Vikram Jandhyala wants to change.
Jandhyala took over as the university’s new Vice Provost of Innovation back in June and replaced Linden Rhoads, who had helped boost the number of startups coming out of the UW over the past six years.
But Jandhyala wants to take it a step further. Not only does he want to continue the work already done by Rhoads, but the former chair of the UW’s Electrical Engineering department wants to see an innovation mindset spread across campus.
“I want to see the creative juices becoming part of the education system, rather than something you do after the fact, or just happening on your own time,” said Jandhyala, who’s worked as a professor, department chair, and company founder. “Let’s make that part of the education system.”
We stopped by the UW’s Center for Commercialization and spent some time talking with Jandhyala about his ambitions as the new Vice Provost of Innovation. As a UW alum just two years removed from school, I certainly came away from our conversation wanting to go back to college.
“We want to be known for coming up with innovative ways to solve problems of value to society,” Jandhyala said. “I don’t know if any university is really known for that yet. For universities to stay viable and really be part of the conversation, they have to do that.”
Read on for edited excerpts from our chat with Jandhyala.
GeekWire: Thanks for chatting with us, Vikram. It’s been a little more than two months since you took up this new role at the UW. How is it going so far?
Vikram Jandhyala: “It’s been great. This is a very exciting time for the university. There just seems to be a lot of desire to connect. One of my goals here is to connect different areas which are happening on the university campus already, but that have not been connected or been siloed. That’s not always easy, but it will have a lot of bang for the buck in terms of students who want to have that innovative mindset, irrespective of how they get into the university or what major they choose. That’s what we’re trying to get to — how do you beyond getting them trained to be PhD so they can be an academic, or getting them an undergraduate degree which gets them a job in a particular segment or prepares them for grad school. What is a core set of innovative disciplines that we can offer to students across campus? That’s going to be the educational aspect of my role.
It’s the entrepreneurial and creative mindset that we can play a role in. It’s really about things like, maybe you don’t need a whole degree for this, or maybe you need a weekend hacking contest, or something like just-in-time education — a short series of information awareness things about entrepreneurship, startups, innovation.
It’s also about more and more teamwork. Startups work well with teamwork and leadership, solving problems with incomplete information and short time frames. How do you simulate or how do you get students to do more of that here on campus? We’re talking a lot about maker spaces and do-it-yourself spaces, which I think are going to be key to anything we do. We want to get people from very different backgrounds together — history, sociology, chemistry, computer science — and say, let’s build a solution to a problem.”
GeekWire: That sounds cool. Can you say more about how you want to bring together the different disciplines across campus and spread the idea of innovation?
Jandhyala: “I think it’s something we have to do. Let’s not just train students to be academics. It’s an absolutely lofty goal, but I think this is for the health of higher education and especially state universities. I think it’s a must.
It’s also a must, more importantly, for the next generation of students. We are preparing students for careers which are 20, 30 years ahead. We don’t know what those careers are, so we can’t prepare for those, but we can at least prepare them to constantly rethink what they are doing to be innovative. Without that, they are just learning today’s skills.
Online will be part of it, no question. There’s a lot of discussion around the flipped classroom model, and there’s a space at Suzzallo LIbrary being redone to do that, along with other space on campus. The DIY spaces also fit into this, too.
This is good for the university. We’re almost disrupting ourselves. It’s an experiment, but I think now is the time to do it. Some students realize that in the first year of their job, nothing they learned in school has prepared them — so how can we do more? Of course, we’re not going to do vocational training, but thinking in a team, thinking within computing information, how to prioritize, make decisions — a lot of leadership things.
I was in a meeting today and we had many folks from the athletic department show up. The first thing we talked about was the leadership skills imparted to the students in the athletic program. There’s no reason we can’t do that for all students, right? Of course they can learn that. What the curriculum is going to look like and how it’s going to work — that’s going to take time. But I think that conversation has started.”
GeekWire: What do you think about the relationship between the business community here in Seattle and the UW?
Jandhyala: “Well, you’ve seen Startup Hall just come here. That’s a great start for U-District and gets the innovative community very close to us. It’s across the street from dorms, and there are discussions of dorms having their own DIY spaces in there. So you start start seeing this intermixing between the external community and people like Chris Devore and programs like Founders Co-op.
The next step is, can we do more of this? Think of it as pipeline. There’s incubated startups that then grow into a 30-person company. There isn’t space right now at the UW where you can just move into a new space. You have to find space elsewhere in town or across the lake. That’s something I think would be very critical — can we build an ecosystem right here?
We’re also talking to Office of Research because this is really a collaboration of research advancement and us. For example, Intel has a lab here. Can we do more of that, where companies have challenges that students can work on, whether it’s through research grants or not. That’s how I think innovation will happen — getting the industry mentors, getting students together for credit, and spend some time on these projects. By the end of a quarter, students will have learned how to work together, how to schedule things, how to take risk out of the equation — all while working with mentors from the industry.
I think there’s a lot of good volunteer activity in town where we can connect to large companies and they will see the benefit of having students trained here who might become interns and eventually employees. I see Amazon, Boeing, Microsoft, companies in the retail community here — those are all going to be key players for us.
In some sense, thanks to Linden, we are ahead of game already with engaging the business community. One of my goals is to make that even easier with more frictionless transmission of information and agreements between what’s happening here and what’s happening outside. I think of myself as making two connections – one is within campus and to build an innovation community, and the other is getting it out into the community and actually getting expertise from the community back in.”
GeekWire: Let’s talk about the UW helping launch startups. The university spun out 18 companies last year and set a new record. How do you improve upon that?
Jandhyala: “I think a lot of it has worked done really well. I think what we’ll see more of is sector-specific things happening. So, with something like the biotech sector with Big Pharma, that’s always going to depend on deep IP and a lot of dollars. That’s one where it makes sense to really focus on the IP and protect the IP. But there are things like the mobile space, DIY hacker stuff, the Internet of Things — you may not even have any IP, but we want to enable students to work and do stuff like that.
We’ll see another kind of startup coming up here, which may not directly have licensed IP from the university, but we will create an ecosystem to enable that. Of course programs like the business plan competition do that already, but let’s go one step further and now create an incubator or something like Startup Hall. I think the university can even be more involved in doing much of that.
There’s nothing better than learning from other startups around you. There are models, particularly in the Bay Area, where you have everything from one open room and tables, and you start that way. As a company grows and you reach ten people, then you get moved to a office suite, and when it gets to 30, you morph to a different building. That scale, that pipeline — that’s what we have to build. It’s going to be a partnership model obviously with industry. It makes sense to do this off campus because these aren’t things we want to do on campus property. But there’s an educational mission here as well. It’s not a degree program on entrepreneurship, but it’s really doing startups, doing inventions. We just want to enable that. My guess is that we’re going to see a lot more different types of startups — everything from really deep IP with several millions of dollars of investment, to the dorm room startups. We want to support that whole range.”
GeekWire: Where do you see the UW in 10 years, if all this goes to plan?
Jandhyala: “The vision would be to have a lot more opportunity in the curricula to learn about creativity, and to be creative. Some students may say that their heart is in academia, and that is fine. But we just want to have more awareness, which we don’t have right now.
Some students ask faculty, how do I do a startup? They don’t really understand what it means. So almost think of an innovation boot camp, something like that. Let’s at least get people aware that if you want to learn more about any aspect of innovation, there exists these resources. Let’s have an innovation bootcamp available for all students and make it fun, maybe part of their first week of orientation, for undergraduates and graduates, along with incoming faculty.
That brings up another point: we have to do service to our faculty. While some faculty don’t have that awareness, they want to go to a school which is the most innovative, the most translationally aware. One interesting, very simple thing we could do is for every faculty member who has been interviewed to also be aware of this innovation process. That’s the vision, that this will be known to all students and faculty. It will be something that students can pick on their own time and be both available in programs and outside.
I think the keyword is just-in-time education. Maybe a student doesn’t need a full course for this, maybe they need something online or one 3-hour lecture by an expert, or a 6-hour hands-on session. How can we provide these different units of learning?
We also want easy access for industry expertise, but — and this is the challenge — without diluting the academic mission. We don’t want to do work for hire. That is the important distinction. But if the industry is looking five years ahead and they have problem in mind, I think that’s a great place to be. Government as well. The vision would to have spaces and programs that accomplish this. Then, the tech transfer becomes an integral part of that. We want to see ourselves not as policeman of IP, but really enablers — more like guidance and stewards. When students leave from here, they should have a feeling that I learned my core degree, but also learned this information that is going to help me in life.”