Triple helix holds the key to win, win, win situation

August 22, 2003

Globetrotting Saskia Sassen tells Huw Richards of globalisation's nuances, while Henry Etzkowitz sketches the entrepreneurial university for Walter Ellis.

European academia has much work to do to before it can match the entrepreneurial ethos of its US counterpart, says Henry Etzkowitz, director of the Science Policy Institute at the State University of New York and a leading analyst of what he calls the entrepreneurial university.

In the US, the example set many years ago by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, the University of Chicago and the American National Laboratory has been replicated many times over, so that technology transfer is now widely recognised as a principal product of the university system.

Although it is well behind its US cousins, Britain is catching up fast, Etzkowitz says. "The UK has the ability to flip-flop very rapidly. Perhaps it's the Thatcher effect or the lack of a written constitution.

Universities that used to ignore commerce and sales today accept them as a key part of their everyday life. Newcastle is a good example. It has developed first-rate links with technology-based firms and has established a reputation in the practical side of pharmaceuticals and engineering. And there is a new breed of entrepreneurial scientists, backed by the National Science Foundation and the Science Policy Support Group."

What is lacking, in his opinion - and this applies to the US and Europe, not solely the UK - is a true intellectual understanding of how the crossover process works and how to improve the structure. Etzkowitz calls this (hoped for) dynamic relationship between government, industry and universities the "triple helix". Without the triple helix, things go on as now: piecemeal, almost accidental, with many left out of the loop. With it, a model becomes possible, breathing new life into academic research and applying the results to the market and the wider economy. Universities become engines of growth, central to their communities, not merely their staff and graduates.

Etzkowitz himself is a model of the kind of dynamic crossover he describes.

His personal triple helix involves an associate professorship of sociology at Purchase College, New York, chairmanship of the inter-university seminar on innovation in New York and his science policy work. He is also acquiring a name internationally. Next week, he will be a key speaker at the World Conference on Cooperative Education in Rotterdam. In Sweden, where Etzkowitz has done extensive research, the idea of the triple helix has taken root to such an extent that there is a new Innovation Centre, part of the Blekinge Institute of Technology, based on his theories. His latest book, The Triple Helix and the Emergence of the Entrepreneurial University (which has yet to find an English-language publisher), will soon be published in Sweden under the imprint of the Centre of Business and Policy Studies in Stockholm.

Different areas of the world take different approaches. "In Mexico, you can't ignore the role of government in innovation. Universities and industry are being held back. In Eastern Europe, the disappearance of a centralised, top-down government, for several years a glaring absence, is now leading to new initiatives. Western Europe has its own pattern. In the past, as in Germany, industry often grew out of the links between professors and students - links that were lost as a new generation of managers took over. Today, with Sweden as a prime example, students with training have become the new driving force. Universities bring in outsiders from industry to review their programmes and then go into the world looking for connections."

One of Etzkowitz's favourite models is developing in Brazil (another country with which he has close links). There, he says, entrepreneurship within universities has made rapid progress, largely because everyone wants to help everyone else. Individuals, he says, want to make a profit and see their companies grow, but because Brazil's academic and industrial infrastructure is fluid - lacking the narrow competitiveness that, as in New York, often stifles research - the feeling has grown that expanding knowledge and sharing ideas helps everyone.

But what of America? "In the US, it's still rare for a chief executive to be a PhD. Academics in the past tended to advise, not take part. But today's PhDs have a new career path. They can explore new forms, not just teach or engage in pure research. Science has become social. 'My son the doctor' does not have to mean being an MD. Today's scientists are not like 'Q' [the eccentric boffin in the James Bond movies] - they are part of the community in which they live."

No one will be surprised to learn that, building on the pioneering work of MIT, it was the US Central Intelligence Agency that helped kickstart the second generation of science-based entrepreneurs. The CIA was keen to develop closer links between Washington and the many thousands of potential innovators at work in America's universities. It formed Inqutel (the "q" derived from the above-named Bond boffin) and declared isolation the enemy of practical science. America's formidable range of weapons systems, including stealth aircraft and cruise missiles, are products of this new relationship.

But the military-industrial complex does not confine its activities to the US. Etzkowitz recalls how, in the mid-1980s, he gave a talk on the role played by MIT in bringing academia and industry together to Britain's Science Policy Support Group. Afterwards, he was offered funds by Nato to organise a workshop on the theory and practice of the triple helix, attended by researchers, practitioners, industrialists and government experts. Similar conferences have taken place every two years since.

Etzkowitz is aware of the tension between research and teaching at the modern university and believes it can never be fully resolved. But he insists that professors who work with their students, exploring the opportunities of the wider world, will find it productive. More to the point, he implies, the institutions for which they work will grow rich and productive.

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