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Inclusive Innovation: A Leading University Bridges Innovation With Academia

When thinking about innovation and entrepreneurship, images of Silicon Valley and new sleek tech hubs immediately come to mind. But the role of academia, home to entrepreneurs in training and top research labs, often is ignored. At the University of Washington in Seattle (UW), Vikram Jandhyala is challenging this perception. As Vice President of Innovation Strategy and Executive Director of UW’s startup incubator, CoMotion, Jandhyala is pioneering a hybrid role that connects the university with real world challenges. In the process, a wider definition of innovation is emerging — one that offers a more holistic and inclusive process not only built on a single industry like information technology. Jandhyala, who will be speaking at YPO Innovation Week, recently shared his insights on innovation with YPO:

As UW’s first Vice President of Innovation Strategies, how do you nurture innovation at the university?

When this new role was introduced three years ago, the university began focusing on three tasks. The first relates to innovation transfer, or getting the best ideas from the university into the real world. We also incubate a lot of new startups. In 2016, the University of Washington was once again among the top-ranked innovative universities, No. 5 worldwide, as ranked by Reuters. At the center of this role is CoMotion, a collaborative hub for faculty and students connecting them to like-minded innovators.

The second task involves innovation learning and spreading best practices on how to innovate among students, staff and faculty. We try to help people learn how to think through the creative process when faced with external challenges. So for students, it’s not something they do after they graduate, but throughout their education.

The third thing we do involves innovation strategy. Here we look at how the university can adapt to changing conditions, including leveraging new models of funding and public-private partnerships, like the one we have started with the city of Seattle, the Mobility Innovation Center. Another example is the Amazon Catalyst grants which award early seed funding for anyone in the university with new, world-changing ideas. A more recent example of innovation strategy launching this year is UW’s Global Innovation Exchange (GIX). The Microsoft-funded graduate institute is in partnership with Tsinghua University, one of the top schools in China, and involves Chinese and American students working together to solve great global challenges.

How do you define innovation in this context?

All the work we are doing falls under what we call “inclusive innovation.” This broader view of innovation is not limited to computer science, engineering or business majors. Inclusive innovation is a mindset with a holistic view, an additional skillset that you can add to your existing field.

So while innovation may be an overused word, we are expanding its definition to include making changes, using best solutions and teams, to create positive societal and economic impact. If there is no impact, then it’s not useful. And impact is about understanding the need across multiple fields.

What is the role of technology in inclusive innovation?

More and more researchers are interested in meeting market needs and seeing applications of their research. Technology is often the fastest moving piece, the spear in the process, so it plays key role in innovation. But it is a concentrated role. For example, in the field of autonomous vehicles, a lot of innovation is taking place in policy and ethics. We try to understand the actual problem, leading with technology. Very often there is a technology-related solution, but not always. We also need to understand the role of technology in the developing world, helping close the gap between the haves and have-nots, ensuring the solution offers the right technology that benefits everyone.

How do you build connections with chief executives and entrepreneurs outside the university?

Building connections between academics and chief executives and entrepreneurs is central to CoMotion. We regularly have mentorship programs where CEOs and entrepreneurs come and talk to students. In addition, there are longer term entrepreneurship-in-residence programs. While the university greatly benefits from these programs, CEOs and entrepreneurs also benefit from these connections. First, they gain an understanding of the mindset of innovation by a top university. Second, they meet our top students. And third, CEOs and entrepreneurs are provided with opportunities to invest in new ideas and markets. Connecting resources with opportunities and academics with business helps bring good ideas to practical use, delivering clear impact to the world.

Rola Tassabehji began her career as a marketing trainee in Unilever Arabia and from there moved into several management roles within the marketing and communications function in Unilever global and regional teams, including brand development manager, Dove, Unilever Africa, Middle East, and Turkey and communications manager, Unilever North Africa and Middle East. Following ten years with Unilever, she relocated to Abu Dhabi, U.A.E and joined the team that launched INSEAD campus in the Middle East as external relations director. Rola completed her undergraduate degree at McGill University in Canada, has a Masters degree from the American University of Beirut and a post graduate degree in journalism from London School of Journalism.