The Xconversation: Software CEO Meets University Innovation Leader, Part I

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we tend to have populations or classes of people who get disrupted, and often, pure technologists say that’s not really our problem, that’s just, in some sense, survival of the fittest or evolution.

The third is the scale of innovation. We think most technology innovation has to scale, has to grow, but you can think of innovations which are one-off. If I, as a faculty member, am able to change the life of one student, that’s innovation for that student.

If we define innovation as changing a process or an existing way of doing things to create measurable positive impact—that’s innovation. I think there’s a lot of roles for a lot of us to innovate, and a lot of us to reap benefit from innovation as well.

BC: That’s a great term, actually. I think a lot of times, especially in the United States, innovation gets sort of narrowed to people doing software. And clearly there’s amazing things going on in software. I’m one of the biggest fans of it. But innovation is a much broader thing.

[Lunch arrives. Crist has a tuna salad. Xconomy opts for the avocado toast and an order of meatballs. Jandhyala has a trio of salads.]

VJ: I’m sorry. I’m one of those guys who takes pictures of food. I apologize.

Lunch at The London Plane. Photo by Vikram Jandhyala

Lunch at The London Plane. Photo by Vikram Jandhyala

VJ: Innovation is not just about, is this something we must do, or should do, or a societal reason. We don’t know where the next big idea is going to come from, so the bigger idea pool we can tap into, the more creative that group of people are going to be.

BC: I think it’s a great place for universities and academia to give thought to, because clearly there’s a disruptive side to innovation. There’s no question about it. And from a business perspective, the remit of a management team is really pretty narrow. Drive results, drive shareholder value. So thinking of the full implications of disruptive innovation is outside the remit of a profit-minded business, but it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be on the minds of the societal level, for sure.

X: That begins to answer my next question for you, Barry. As the CEO of a fast-growing, innovative software company in Seattle, what are you looking for from your friendly neighborhood world-renowned research institution? What should someone like Vikram, who’s charged with making those links, be doing that would benefit you?

BC: There’s two things very specifically. First of all is very practical. We love places like UW to churn out really smart, hungry people that want to do amazing things with their careers. You see these reinforcing economies emerging. Certainly Silicon Valley is one. The Seattle area is one of my favorites. It’s not by accident that I live and work here. So from a practical standpoint, that [talent] is the fuel behind companies like Chef. We have some amazing UW graduates at Chef doing some amazing things.

Second, culture is more important than technology innovation—creating a culture of innovation. And I think that’s one of the things that a UW and some of these great academic institutions can help foster. That mindset more than anything.

X: Vikram, you’ve touched on this already, but since you’ve taken over innovation transfer at UW—and that’s not what it was called before—you’ve really broadened the scope beyond patents and startups coming out of the usual departments. What are some of your favorite innovation transfer initiatives going on outside of the traditional fields?

VJ: The core [producers] of startups will continue to remain technology and biotechnology, and we’re seeing very healthy trends there. We tend to do between 10 to 20 startups every year. That’s growing. That will keep happening and that’s a great thing.

But as you said, the mission is broader. And there’s actually three pillars of that mission.

There’s innovation transfer, which is getting the best ideas out, whether they’re technology or not. There’s innovation learning, which is how do you get this mindset, not just into our folks who are going through the entrepreneurship program, which is fantastic, but across campus, how do the students learn what it means to learn from failure, to do multiple tests, to work in teams. And the third is innovation strategy, which is what should we as a university be doing differently, because universities are not, frankly, well renowned for change and being agile.

On the innovation transfer piece, for example, we started working very closely with our School of Social Work, which is a top-three rated school. You don’t think of them necessarily as innovative, but, wow, are they thinking innovatively. Two things have come out which we’ve been working with them.

One is called Partners for Our Children. It’s an organization looking at reforming the way the foster care system is run. It’s in terms of software, in terms of feedback, in terms of apps for the social workers [to help] make sure things happen when they should happen. And so they’re really moving that whole system forward by decades by what they are doing—a combination of technology, user behavior, and so on.

The other is an organization called Forefront, which came out, again, from social work, looking at suicide prevention. And they’re actually working with Facebook to come up with innovative ways that you can actually have some of your closest friends be automatically told that there’s something where a person might need some support. So this is another example where it’s not a pure technology play, but software is helping.

On innovation learning, we started an ideathon, borrowing from the hackathon concept, with the [College of Arts and Sciences]. How can we keep humanities relevant? There’s a lot of questions of humanities being overpriced, and you don’t get a return for your investment. But [students] came up with a solution on how, for example, if you have somebody studying genetics without studying ethics, it’s a pretty slippery slope. And it’s the same in business as well. We know about Enron. So, how can we take those pieces of [humanities] expertise and put them into science courses?

X: Barry, you wrote a blog post highlighting some things in Chef’s employee guide. When Vikram is talking about making sure geneticists are studying ethics, it reminded me of an attribute you look for in employees. You call them “T-shaped” experts—people who are experts in their field, but also have broad knowledge. Why is it important to you?

BC: We actually borrowed that T-shaped piece specifically from … Next Page »

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