John Flavin is executive director of the Chicago Innovation Exchange at the University of Chicago.
The University of Chicago has a long history of innovation.
Without a doubt, the most powerful and influential innovation that ever came out of the school had nothing and everything to do with a borough in New York: research for the Manhattan Project. In 1942 a group of scientists initiated the first self-controlled nuclear chain reaction at the university near the school’s old football stadium, and a few years later the rest would become history when two atomic bombs were dropped and accelerated the end of World War II.
Just two years ago, the university opened its Chicago Innovation Exchange as an outlet for students, faculty and local entrepreneurs to get their ideas up and running. The exchange uses a $20 million investment fund to help startups get off the ground. It currently has 2,000 member and 20 companies in its incubator space, according to John Flavin, the executive director of the exchange.
At The Economist magazine’s Innovation Forum event, which was held last month, I spoke with Flavin about innovations that have come out of the exchange and promoting an innovative culture.
This is part three of a series of interviews from the conference. To read part one — my interview with Synack CEO Jay Kaplan — click here. To read part two — my interview with author Martin Ford — click here.
An edited transcript follows.
Whatever Works: Do you have any examples of success stories from the Chicago Innovation Exchange?
John Flavin: We’re starting to see successful ventures get incubated that are not only Web-based or software-based, but now they’re getting into things like energy storage. There’s a company called NETenergy that’s done very well at the CIE, and a company called Reliefwatch that’s grown from startup — a college student at the university — and under our stewardship [is] up to 15 employees, and they’re graduating out of the space. They’re developing a technology using the cloud that you can use ‘dumb phones’ in emerging places around the world, where computing technology is not available, to manage inventory. So it’s a very inefficient process right now. Everything is done by hand in places like Africa and parts of India. So with this ‘dumb phone’ technology, which is widely pervasive — in fact, cellphones are more available in these regions than water — and so with that technology and this platform, these regions are better able to manage how medicine gets distributed to locations so that it stays fresh and available and effective.
WW: You’re around innovation all the time obviously. So what best practices can you tell companies about promoting an innovative culture?
Flavin: We start with transparency. So when we think about translating a good idea — we have many of them at the university. Think about it: academicians, it’s really their life’s work is coming up with ideas and talking about those ideas and in many cases, historically, that’s been through publishing a paper. But an increased number of those faculty want to take the idea that’s in the paper and make it real and get it out to the world. That’s why you see a lot more faculty, and students for that matter, wanting to innovate and get their ideas out to the world. The main thing that we use to be able to do that, in addition to providing the resources I described, is: To create a culture of innovation, you need transparency. Transparency enables momentum, so if a process is opaque, if people don’t know what to do next, if it’s hard to patent a technology or you don’t know who to call to do these types of things, that really deters innovation. So my best advice from a company perspective in setting the stage for a culture of innovation is transparency in processes so that momentum from idea to commercial validation can occur.
WW: How do you balance promoting innovation vs. if ain’t broke, don’t fix it?
Flavin: We’re moving in a direction where our world is rapidly evolving. You’re seeing large companies being disrupted. You’re seeing even higher education being disrupted. Thinking about it from the vantage point of the University of Chicago, if we took the mentality that ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ then you’d constantly stay in a state of isolation. And isolation in this day and age will mean that you will have a deterioration in your product deliverable. In our case it’s education. And to deliver good education, we need the best faculty and students, and the best faculty and students these days are looking for ways to have outlets for their innovation. The same thing would be true in a large company, too. So I think being able to capture the new energy where there’s lower barriers to entry, for startups for example, they can do very disruptive things to large companies. … So, I think it’s a greater risk to not be aware, be isolated and take the mentality that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.