Saturday, June 03, 2006

Turning Graduate Students into Entrepreneurs

Like the Pittsburgh Region, the Washington, D.C. area is looking for new and better ways to turn new ideas into new companies and new jobs. A new initiative there, spearheaded by Rockville Economic Development, Inc. (REDI), is trying to accelerate technology transfer by encouraging the young researchers in the area to consider becoming entrepreneurs.

There are over 3,000 post-doctoral fellows at the various federal laboratories and universities in the Washington region. (A post-doctoral fellow is someone who has finished their Ph.D. but is pursuing additional training or experience before taking a "permanent" position in academia or a research lab.) As described by REDI Executive Director Sally Sternbach in this past week's Washington Times, the initiative is designed to help those researchers who are interested in pursuing a career outside of universities to either land jobs in industry (where they can learn more about business) or start their own businesses directly. Over 300 post-docs will be attending a day-long seminar on these issues organized by REDI, Maryland state agencies, the Technology Council of Maryland, MD BIO, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Research Council.

Could the Pittsburgh Region do the same thing? In 2003, the University of Pittsburgh had 688 post-docs in science, engineering, and health, the 14th largest number of any university in the country. Carnegie Mellon ranked 70th, with 200 post-docs. Duquesne University ranked 214th, with 9 post-docs. Combined, that's almost 900 of the most talented scientists and engineers in the country, who are by definition developing new ideas or solving problems. Rather than have most of them leave to take faculty jobs in a university elsewhere, what if some of them would stay here as entrepreneurs or as part of start-up companies?

And why stop with post-docs? Most universities have far more graduate students than post-docs. (The Rockville/Washington initiative is focusing on post-docs because of the large number of federal labs there which have large numbers of post-docs but no graduate students.) In 2003, Pitt had 2,799 graduate students in science and engineering (ranking it 39th in the nation among doctorate-granting institutions), and Carnegie Mellon was close behind in 44th place with 2,496 graduate students. Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) had 472, Duquesne University had 262, and Slippery Rock University had 74. Combined, that's over 6,000 graduate students in science and engineering. If only 1% of them decided to be entrepreneurs (or to serve as the Chief Technical Officer for a startup company along with a CEO with experience in running startup companies), that could mean 60 new companies for the region.


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