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Q&A with Paul Roben, Associate Vice Chancellor for Innovation and Commercialization

Image: Paul Roben Associate Vice Chancellor for Innovation and Commercialization in the Office of Research Affairs at UC San Diego

Paul Roben Associate Vice Chancellor for Innovation and Commercialization in the Office of Research Affairs at UC San Diego. Photo by Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego Publications

Paul Roben, the new Associate Vice Chancellor for Innovation and Commercialization in the Office of Research Affairs at UC San Diego, intends to “drive innovation across all areas of campus, and to speed university innovations to markets in California, the nation, and the world.”

UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla, who initiated the new Office of Innovation and Commercialization (OIC) as a key element of the university’s Strategic Plan, says the ambitious effort “supports every one of our public university missions and helps boost our role as a powerful engine of economic growth.”

Roben, who has combined the offices of technology transfer, intellectual property, innovative design and industry partnering under the OIC roof, answers some questions about the new office, the university’s goals, and the prospects for strengthening the university’s “culture of innovation” to broaden the benefits for both the campus and the regional community.

Q: We all probably think we know what “innovation” is. How do you define it?

Roben: I define innovation as people with diverse ideas coming together to create new solutions to the problems that we will all face as a society over the coming years.

Q: Briefly, what is the OIC’s mission?

Roben: We have been charged by the Chancellor and the Vice Chancellor for Research to create a dynamic “innovation ecosystem” that turns ideas into products that solve problems big and small.

Q: How has your experience in economic development and technology growth shaped your approach to the mission of the Office of Innovation and Commercialization?

Roben: I have worked in academia, in companies, and for a government, so I have seen innovation at work from all angles. This has shown me that innovation is, at its heart, all about people. Fundamentally, my job is to provide as many opportunities as possible for people from these different backgrounds to come together with their diverse ideas, to create the solutions of the future. My office can then help to provide them with the education, tools and resources necessary so they can make their ideas become reality.

Q: The campus has a number of offices and organizations dedicated to entrepreneurism and business-creation already. How does the OIC fit into that existing framework?

Roben: The OIC is a cross-campus innovation platform designed to ensure UC San Diego’s position as a major driver of regional development. As you point out, there a many excellent organizations and resources across campus doing outstanding work in the innovation space. The OIC aims to bring the campus to the next level by supporting and aligning those resources toward the common goal of social and economic development. We are also providing new resources in support of these organizations, in a number of areas: People development—inspiring and motivating people to unlock their inner creativity—and innovation programs, such as Entrepreneurs-in-Residence and Proof-of-Concept funding, will create those opportunities where diverse people can come together and innovate—building what is called the “regional ecosystem.”

Q: Given UC San Diego’s notable success in start-ups, and our contributions to regional economic growth, how does the university do better in those areas?

Roben: The university is, indeed, an incredible source of technologies that have been, and will continue to be, the basis of start-up companies. One important role for OIC is to remove any barriers to getting these technologies into the hands of the people who can develop them and start new companies. We will shortly be announcing our new “Open-Flow Innovation” program which will make it considerably easier for entrepreneurs to create more new companies and jobs in the region.

Q: Can you elaborate on what the OIC is doing to bring ideas to market faster?

Roben: We just launched Open-Flow Innovation, a program to remove barriers in the licensing of technologies to spin-off companies, with a goal of speeding the creation of campus start-ups. We are also launching a number of initiatives, such as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence program, to bring the expertise of the private sector to campus, and to help our innovators develop products and services faster. These programs, together with initiatives in education, “innovation concierge” services, and technology-development funding, are all designed to bring ideas to market faster.

Q: What kind of response to your aggressive business-partnership and business-development goals have you received from local industry and community leaders?

Roben: Local leaders have been very supportive of this approach. Most people acknowledge that the way to bring the entire region to the next level of success is to work together to tackle the problems facing society, and also to work together to build the reputation of this region as one of the most innovative in the world, in order to attract the best people and investment to the region. Local leaders recognize UC San Diego as the major source of people and technologies that will drive these efforts, and welcome the chance to partner with the university in our new business-friendly approach.

Q: Say I’m a student, or faculty member, or even a member of the community looking for some expert help developing a new idea or a useful new gizmo. How does your new office, the OIC, help me?

Roben: One of the first things we are doing is an “entrepreneur’s road map”—basically a tour guide for anyone interested in this space to help them find the resources they need to get them to the next step in developing their idea. This can be anything from mentorship to physical space to legal services to investment. We hope to have this available online early in the new year, along with an Entrepreneur Liaison, who can help you navigate the system. In the meantime, anyone can contact my office and we will try and get them the help they need.

Q: For the OIC to succeed, the university’s faculty members must buy into your vision and your mission. How do you ensure that faculty members get behind your drive to spur innovation and increase campus start-ups?

Roben: Every strategy and every program is formulated with faculty input. In addition, we have an Entrepreneurship Leaders Council that meets monthly, composed of faculty and key innovators, to discuss and guide our strategic vision. We are conducting a series of outreach events to our faculty on a college-by-college basis, to present that vision and get their ideas and suggestions about the direction we are taking. We also operate an open-door policy and actively encourage feedback from the entire campus community—particularly faculty members—on our innovation strategy.

Q: You’ve put together a talented, experienced and optimistic team. Tell us what you and your team hope to have accomplished in five years.

Roben: In five years, UC San Diego will be globally recognized as the partner of choice for innovation.