Ahead of WARF Keynote, Gigaom’s Reese Talks Academia’s Startup Push
Byron Reese, the Gigaom publisher and successful entrepreneur who has written extensively on how technology impacts society, says he believes the biggest future breakthroughs are likely to come from universities and startup companies, rather than large, publicly traded ones.
“I think really disruptive things will always come from universities and entrepreneurs,” says Reese, whose most recent book The Fourth Age examines how robotics and artificial intelligence could shape the future. “Universities don’t have quarterly earnings reports to file, or anything like that.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Reese will give the keynote address at a new, innovation-focused conference at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Discovery building. The event, WARF Innovation Day, is organized by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, which manages patents and licensing of intellectual property for the university. (Stick around for a networking reception co-hosted by Xconomy at the end of the day—our annual “Meet the Xconomists” gathering in Wisconsin. Click here to register for the free conference and reception.)
Reese says new technologies fundamentally do two things: solve technical problems, and make humans more productive, which in turn increases wealth and well being.
He predicts that as software and gadgets continue to play a larger role in the lives of people across the globe, “you’re going to see per-capita worldwide income skyrocket because these technologies will multiply the productivity of people so dramatically.”
Replacing humans with robots on assembly lines and other moves to cut costs and increase output have shaken up the manufacturing industry, among other sectors. The pattern of U.S. companies increasingly automating production of the goods they sell—or moving operations overseas—has led to job losses domestically, creating a political flashpoint.
Asked about automation and the future of work, Reese says he takes the long view. By his estimate, about half of all U.S. jobs vanish every 50 years. As a result, some sectors employ far fewer workers today than in the past.
“From 1850 to 1900, they were mostly agriculture jobs,” he says. “From 1950 to 2000, it’s a lot of manufacturing. Yet, somehow, this country has maintained full employment and rising incomes for 250 years. [New] technologies come along and people use them to make better, higher-paying jobs.”
Reese says that while the pace of progress in artificial intelligence and related computing fields has accelerated in recent years, the term dates back to the 1950s. He says that over the decades, A.I. has gone through “springs,” periods marked by excitement and easy access to funding. What have followed are “winters,” where a lack of progress toward the goal that generated the initial excitement “disappoints people, and the funding dries up,” Reese says.
Due in part to these boom and bust cycles, he says, some software and technology companies lowered the amounts they invest in research and development of A.I. technologies. Universities have been more consistent when it comes to support for high-tech projects, according to Reese, who argues that A.I. “really only lived as a tradition for a long time in universities.”
“Universities have a lot of A.I. talent,” he adds.
Holding on to that talent can be a challenge. In 2015, Uber hired 40 researchers who worked at Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center to staff Uber’s robotics lab in Pittsburgh, to name one example.
There is a great deal of overlap between the worlds of academia and industry, of course. Reese believes that’s only likely to increase over time.
“Universities are becoming more market-driven,” he says. “They’re patenting stuff. They’re licensing stuff. They look at it as a revenue stream.”
WARF is known in academic and business circles as a powerhouse. The organization had an endowment of $2.6 billion as of mid-2017. Since WARF’s founding in 1925, it has provided more than $2.6 billion in grant funding to UW-Madison and the university-affiliated Morgridge Institute for Research.
But even with a strong track record and plenty of financial muscle, WARF has signaled that it intends to wade deeper into venture capital investing, an area that has lots of buzz but also carries significant risk.
In August 2017, WARF said it planned to create two new venture funds and invest a combined $60 million in startups affiliated with UW-Madison by 2025. At that time, WARF managing director Erik Iverson also unveiled a $50 million initiative aimed at commercializing UW-Madison research and discoveries related to drugs and biologics, which he said represented more than two-thirds of WARF’s patent portfolio.
At WARF Innovation Day next week, leaders at the organization will tell investors, entrepreneurs, and others in attendance how it’s working to bring technologies developed on UW-Madison’s campus from labs and classrooms into the marketplace. The efforts researchers plan to highlight include development of artificial blood vessels and new methods for synthesizing peptides and sorting cancer immunotherapy cells.