BY GREGORY ZELLER // A Hofstra University effort to combine industrial and educational forces is breaking the innovation mold. And intellectual property rights are only part of the sea change.
Many universities now host “innovation centers,” noted Kevin Craig, director of Hofstra’s Center for Innovation, and Hofstra’s version does what most of the others do: accelerate development and commercialization of new technologies by fostering collaboration between industry, school faculty and students.
And Hofstra carves itself a distinct advantage, according to Craig, in its handling of precious intellectual-property rights. Companies that throw in with the Center for Innovation keep their IP, instead of sharing it with – or surrendering it to – the school, a caveat Craig insisted upon when he moved to Hempstead last year.
The struggle over IP rights is “the biggest obstacle to university-industry collaborations,” the director noted, including collaborations he’s orchestrated at Wisconsin’s Marquette University and the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Upstate New York. But at the Hofstra Center for Innovation, “the IP belongs to the sponsor,” said Craig, who also directs Hofstra’s Robotics and Advanced Manufacturing Laboratory.
Hofstra University President Stuart Rabinowitz “was very bold in his thinking when he granted my request to let the companies keep the IP rights,” he said. “This gives them the opportunity to collaborate with the best minds in academia without having to worry about losing their stuff.”
Hofstra, meanwhile, collects a negotiated fee to cover the costs of using school equipment and laboratories. More importantly, the university enriches its reputation as a go-to place for cutting-edge companies looking to access the world’s brightest minds.
Craig noted that he has “a lot of colleagues” at top-flight schools including Marquette, NYC’s Columbia University and Georgia Tech, and said the Center for Innovation is not limiting its reach to Hofstra faculty.
“My job as the director is to thoroughly understand the needs of these companies and comprise the right team to solve them,” Craig said. “It could be Hofstra faculty, it could be Hofstra faculty augmented by somebody from Columbia, but it’s going to be the best team to solve whatever problem the company needs solved.”
Although the curtain raised on the Center for Innovation only three months ago, this multipronged approach is already visible. In addition to working on a project with auto-parts-maker Hayes Performance Systems of Wisconsin (an old connection from Craig’s Marquette days) and negotiating an arrangement with Stamford, Conn.-based global tech giant Pitney Bowes, the Center for Innovation is knee-deep in a project targeting hydrocephalus – an abnormal accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid around the brain – involving Hofstra professors, a resident in the Cushing Neuroscience Institute at North Shore University Hospital, a student at the North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine and a Columbia-based mechanical engineer.
There’s been no significant advancements in the technology used to counter hydrocephalus since 1962, when the children’s author Roald Dahl – following a car accident that critically injured his son – teamed with a hydraulic engineer and a neurosurgeon to create the Wade-Dahl-Till valve, a cerebral shunt that drains fluid from the brain cavity.
That may soon change, noted fourth-year medical student Justin Henneman, who’s collaborating with NSUH resident Dr. Alexander Gamble and the others to design “a more modern way to pump out the fluid.”
Henneman, who studied mechanical engineering before attending med school, knows that uniting engineers and doctors is not always the natural way of things.
“They’re usually on different parts of the campus and they don’t talk nearly enough,” he said. “So I’m acting as a sort of translator between the engineering world and the medical world. When you put these two groups of people in the same room, they can do some pretty impressive stuff.”
Henneman has been working in the Center for Innovation for about a month, and noted the available resources – including a state-of-the-art 3D printer – are proving invaluable to the group’s efforts.
“We can replicate parts very quickly and very smoothly,” the student said. “I don’t have to go through the traditional mechanisms for making parts, drilling holes or cutting into metal. And when we’re ready to add all the moving parts, they have all the automation and robotics resources.”
That at-your-fingertips ease is the goal of all university-based innovation centers, but the beauty of Hofstra’s, according to Craig, is that IP concession. In addition to elevating Hofstra faculty to “world-class status,” the director noted, this will ultimately benefit Hofstra’s students as well.
“This is not a student-centered center; it’s a real-world-problem-solving-center,” Craig said. “But students will not only see what we’re doing, they may also participate. And when companies see what we can do, they’ll start to take a closer look at Hofstra graduates. Everything about this will enhance Hofstra’s reputation.”
Since the center doesn’t currently include office or lab space for participating companies, it didn’t cost the university anything to take this step – “just the IP policy,” Craig noted, “and we were good to go.” And while Hofstra is thrilled to work with major-league companies from Wisconsin and Connecticut, it knows its sweet spot will be home-grown Long Island startups, so the Center for Innovation is planning an open house for later this year to showcase the university’s high-tech facilities for local industry.
“We can be an enormous help to the startup company that’s fearful of losing its IP and doesn’t have any money to invest,” Craig said. “Forty-thousand dollars won’t buy you half an engineer for one year, but that same money can put a team of industry experts to work on your problem.
“We’re not in the business of owning IP or patents,” the director added. “We’re educators and we want help companies solve society’s most urgent needs. We want to innovate. That’s what engineers do.”