Luis Proenza: Creating synergy to grow the NEO economy takes partnerships

“America’s colleges and universities have gotten the entrepreneurial bug.” So says a recent report from the U.S. Department of Commerce titled, “The Innovative and Entrepreneurial University.” From my vantage point on various national boards and committees related to our nation’s economic competitiveness, I wonder why it is that business and industry are either unaware of, or ignoring, the massive potential synergies of this largely untapped and increasingly enthusiastic university resource. 

Perhaps this is because of old notions of universities as isolated “ivory towers,” but that could not be further from the truth. The fact is that the role of universities has changed dramatically — we are now anchors for clusters of innovation and generators of multiple forms of capital, including creative, social, financial and natural capital. We have become conveners and developers dedicated to the principles of relevance, connectivity and productivity.

Research is vital

Here is why university-based research is so vital to Northeast Ohio’s economy:

Jeremy Siegel, a professor of finance at The Wharton School of Business, observed that, “Economic growth is based on advances in productivity, and productivity is based on discovery and innovation.”

In fact, nearly every economist agrees that the creation of new technological knowledge through research is our most direct economic avenue for acquiring added value.

They understand that when new knowledge is quantified in a market environment, it creates fuller employment, capital formation, growing profits and surpluses for reinvestment.

Put more simply, research begets new companies, which beget new jobs, which beget economic expansions and ultimately the creation of new wealth. It’s the economic version of “the birds and the bees.”

Unfortunately, too few companies recognize that academic research is a source of innovation with the potential to ignite economic chain reactions within their businesses. U.S. colleges and universities perform the bulk of our country’s basic research, and they compete for approximately $32.6 billion of federal support for research.

Seize the opportunity

For innovation to flourish, we might expect that the source of knowledge creation — basic research at our universities — would be closely linked to its application by industry. But industry presently supports less than 6 percent of university research in the U.S., a figure that has declined from a high of 7 percent. This is a major disconnect — and an opportunity waiting to be seized.

Northeast Ohio is making progress in developing its innovation ecosystem, as witnessed by such government, industry and academic collaborations as the National Center for Education and Research on Corrosion and Materials Performance in Akron, the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute in Youngstown and the Manufacturing Advocacy & Growth Network in Cleveland.

Indeed, at The University of Akron we have moved far beyond the traditional tools for licensing and commercialization to create a broad-based and robust platform, or “tool chest” for economic development that focuses on collaboration with the private sector.

To truly grow NEO’s innovation ecosystem, more corporations and businesses need to leverage the opportunities presented by those universities and colleges bitten by the entrepreneurial bug. 

Luis M. Proenza is president of The University of Akron and serves on the Executive Committee of the Council on Competitiveness, the Board on Science, Technology, and Economic Policy at the National Academies, as well as its Council of the Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable. For more information, visit