Foundations Have Role in Fostering Innovation

In the midst of a wrenching economic downturn and facing warnings that the United States is losing its competitive edge, universities have shown a growing interest in "innovation economics," and experts say foundations could do much to help advance the field, the New York Times reports.

While many funders make grants in support of innovation and entrepreneurship, the Kansas City-based Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation has made the broadest commitment to the field. Indeed, its focus on the field in recent years has helped push innovation from being a vague admonition in policy speeches to a growing discipline involving serious research.

Carl J. Schramm, who became president of the foundation in 2002, recalled that the foundation used to try to persuade business schools to start entrepreneurship programs, whereas today it is one of the nation's largest private supporters of economic research in universities. "We try to foster a deeper understanding of the innovation process," said Schramm, "and that is our leverage point to help stimulate economic growth [and] create new jobs and wealth."

The foundation often supports data-intensive research, which can lead to other initiatives. For example, research on universities and technology transfer suggested that formal programs tended to ignore many inventions and discoveries with commercial potential. To address the problem, Kauffman established the iBridge Network, a Web site and database containing three thousand inventions posted by scientists and engineers from forty universities.

"Innovation itself is a field in need of innovation," said John Kao, a consultant to governments and corporations and former professor at the Harvard Business School. "What we really need is more original thinking about how innovation works in society — and that could come from the philanthropic sector as well as universities."

Steve Lohr. "Helping America Keep Its Innovative Edge." New York Times 11/10/2008.