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the hands of entrepreneurial folks. Desh Deshpande has done a magnificent job with the Deshpande Center. He is taking a very analytical approach to these issues, [asking] systemically what is standing between a good idea in an MIT lab and it being commercialized, and what do the researchers need to know that they don’t about the context or the process, and what do entrepreneurs need to know about the process of discovery that they don’t know, and how can we get these people talking. I’ve talked with Desh about this, to find out what it is we can do to make sure that the best practices that he is uncovering there are implemented throughout the state and particularly in public universities.
X: You talked about the challenge of getting ideas from the lab bench to market, and there’s a real sense that there is a funding gap there—that there aren’t enough players willing to provide seed money. Is that an area where state government can step up, or are budgets so tight that you’re limited to doing things that don’t cost money?
GB: It’s a challenge, but we do have some vehicles to help with that. In particular, it’s been a very important part of Governor Patrick’s agenda to increase the public resources available for innovation by creating a life sciences center and funding it and creating the clean energy center and funding it. The Life Sciences Center has money available for researchers in Massachusetts who have promising ideas but whose research is not getting NIH funding—it was identified that NIH funding, for legitimate reasons, tends to go to senior researchers who have a track record of discovery, so we felt that one of the gaps was that junior researchers who had very promising ideas [were not getting funded], so we can support them now. That had two goals—to get that research done, if the idea had promise, and to show that Massachusetts is the kind of place that supports young people doing research, and that it’s a good place to be in the life science sector. [Editor’s note: As of this writing, the Massachusetts legislature had not adopted a budget amendment offered by Governor Patrick that would give Massachusetts Life Science Center the funds to continue disbursing research grants. Unless the legislature revisits the issue, or unless the state government exits 2009 with a net budget surplus, the center will have no funding in 2010.]
X: What about the IT sector? As a result of the economic crisis and changes in the venture industry, I think there is a problem that’s directly analogous to the NIH funding issue you mention, which is that venture funds are far more willing to invest in established players in the software or Web arena than in first-time entrepreneurs. So there are a lot of new companies going after a very small amount of seed-stage venture capital.
GB: When the Governor came in, it was clearly identified that there were funding gaps in the life sciences and in clean energy. We heard from a lot of people that those gaps were significant, and that they were causing good ideas not to be pursued to a commercial state. In general, we were hearing that on the IT side that was less of an issue. Of course, there has been a sea change in the amount of private venture capital available, and that is part of the conversation we’ve been having with folks in the IT Collaborative. On the one hand, you hear some very pessimistic things about whether private VC will return. But I also hear a lot of people who are pushing for an evolution in the way young companies get started; there are a lot more young companies in IT focusing now on the development of products that require less capital. So, for example, you’ve seen this whole cottage industry of folks developing iPhone apps and other mobile apps, and a lot of the innovation in IT now is focused on … Next Page »
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