April 10, 2006
Regional Advantage: Part 2- Pitting Belgium's IMEC against California's U.C. Berkeley
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At Berkeley, only a small number of faculty are actually involved in a start-up. At the University, we have some very strict rules. If you start up your own company, you can take a year of industry leave. If you apply and are accepted, you can be granted a second year. But taking a third year is a no, no. You have to make a choice between the company and your faculty position.
If you are a professor and you have involvement, you have to disclose everything. You have to have special permissions even to serve on a board. I believe the quality of the school is in what you do in your teaching and your research. The value there relates directly to how you interact with the community at large. Many professors do consult and have interactions with companies that way. They build on that community interaction through their students. But this interaction is important. If you create an ivory tower where academics is doing things on its own, it quickly become irrelevant.
However, at IMEC, being involved in a start-up is a metric they use for success. The researchers there, and the ideas, can be measured by how many spin-offs and patents are granted on the technology.
[Editor's Note: In 2004, IMEC reports 1400 papers were published from research at the institute, and 60+ patent applications were submitted.]
For the government there - the Flemish government - it's especially important, because they see it as a method for job creation in the area. Ultimately, it's about Flanders. There has been a diminishing amount of high-tech in the area. Alcatel has totally retracted from Flanders, so there's really only Philips left. The [high-tech academic infrastructure there] is feeding into an empty economy, with the exception of a tiny number of companies.
Q: So these are complicated issues having to do with both technology transfer, and the economic health of a region.
Rabaey: The question we're asking at Cal and at IMEC is: How can we make technology transfer happen from research institutions out into industry? By the nature of the material, you want that research to be out there being used. So, you need look at longer-term, aggressive thinking for technology. And that's where there is this gap. Bigger companies work in a 2-to-3 year timeframe, while universities look to the longer term, with more aggressive thinking in their research. The gap in between used to be filled in by the larger companies and their R&D labs.
Today in California, and the U.S. in general, the gap is being filled by start-ups. So, for professors at Cal, working at a start-up is a way to look around at the whole technology ecosystem, the culture of the entrepreneur that's an essential part of the technology transfer process. I believe this combination of research in connection with industry, and long-term research is a healthy kind of mixture. If you create the philosophy where people are excited, where you get people directed to the right things, you can add to that by having the contacts in industry.
Q: So how does that differ from IMEC?
Rabaey: Well, teaching is a big part of the story, of course, but the two centers have different roles. IMEC is an institute, not an educational operation. The majority of the people at IMEC are staff people. There's continuity there - many of the staff have been there for 10 years or more.
In a university, there's a natural turnover with the researchers as the graduate students finish. The majority of the researchers role over every 5 years. IMEC has done a good job of bringing foreign students, graduate students, and post-docs in, but only a fraction of the researchers are students, so there's only partially a creation of the renewal process there.
When I was at IMEC I saw that sometimes on the larger projects, you could lose that sense of renewal that you find in the university research setting. Flanders is a socialist country. People there are used to lifetime protection in their jobs. Here in the U.S., people have to deal with the reality of corporate change. That's what's happening here.
I've tried to create a research ecosystem at Berkeley that includes the efforts of both of IMEC and Berkeley. I tried to work on projects that were complementary in nature, to create something substantially different by creating complementary agendas. Some of the cutting-edge work from IMEC and some from Berkeley.
It was an unfortunate thing, however, as competition between the two locations developed. However, I still believe there is a clear place for an operation like IMEC, people who bring things that are from industry as an alternative to the start-up model.
Q: Do you visit IMEC on a regular basis then?
Rabaey: Yes, I go there regularly. I'll be there soon because there is a big research renewal meeting this spring where the [research agenda] for the next 5 years will be evaluated. They will bring in a panel of experts for 3 full days. It's going to be very interesting. There are some small spin-offs from IMEC doing some really interesting stuff. Some of the spin-offs from IMEC are contrived because they just felt they had to do it, but other spin-offs are better because they are based on an enthusiasm for the technology.
The interaction between industry and academia is a complex one, and not always a subtle one. Although I am drawn to what I would describe as the less frenetic institute model - IMEC's in particular - I will end with two letters that came in response to Part 1 of this series on Regional Advantage.
The first suggests that Aachen is also a center of technical excellent and innovation. The second disagrees about my description of the best environment with which to foster innovation. The letters are an important part of this discussion - how to optimize the ecosystem for creativity and breakthrough in technology, while keeping an eye on the implied Regional Advantage in the process.
The Third Leg of the ELAT Triangle
I could not resist, but had to write you that your 'Regional Picture' needs to be extended to include my alma mater, the Technical University at Aachen.
While the original technology influx into CoWare came from IMEC and CoWare retains very good cooperation with IMEC - through the LISATEK acquisition and a nonstop influx of Ph.D. and Master students from Aachen into CoWare, CoWare has built up a very strong leg with Aachen as well.
I am proud to say, that 'we alumni from Aachen' are not afraid to compete with any of the technologists from either Leuven or Berkeley. If you are interested in making a trip to Aachen which is, with a good car and neglecting the Belgium police, about an hour's drive away from Leuven, you could add a very interesting research center to your report.
Let me know and I will make that connection for you. If you already visited Leuven, then you should plan an extension of your report next time you are in Europe.
Director Marketing, CoWare Signal Processing Designer
The Truth About Innovation
I want to take exception to your closing paragraph about innovation [in Part 1 of Regional Advantage].
It has been my experience that ideas are not born out of tranquil environments. Ideas are born out of frenetic environments where there is a problem that needs a solution, and there is a real consequence to not finding it. That's why so much innovation comes from start-ups.
Inspiration can come while in a tranquil environment, when you have the time to look back at the problems you've recently dealt with and maybe get an 'a-ha' moment. But actually solving the problems associated with turning the inspiration into reality is not done in peace and quiet.
Chief Technology Office
Forte Design Systems
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