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Book Review

The Engines of Innovation: The Entrepreneurial University in the Twenty-First Century

After the financial meltdown of 2008, University of North Carolina Entrepreneur in Residence and Professor of the Practice in the Department of Economics Buck Goldstein and University of North Carolina Chancellor Holden Thorp were particularly taken by the observations of two people. The first was Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google. As part of a panel on the world economic crisis, Schmidt said, “We are going to have to innovate our way out of this thing and our great research universities will have to lead the way.” A week later, Michael Porter, the Bishop William Lawrence University Professor at Harvard Business School declared in a Business Week article that America urgently needs a coherent economic strategy based in large part upon our strengths in innovation, entrepreneurship, and higher education.

Those two observations became the focus for this book. The authors write in the introduction, “A new economy cannot be rebuilt by replicating the New Deal. In the future, the buildings housing those who will create well-paying, sustainable jobs, and provide the United States with a sustainable competitive advantage in the global economy, are not courthouses or government offices but research labs, classrooms, and innovation centers where big ideas are hatched and subsequently translated into reality.

“The superhighways that will change the world are not asphalt but electronic; and rather than connecting the world’s great cities, the new superhighways provide access to most of the world’s knowledge. What is most exciting about innovation is that it begins with a problem; the bigger the problem, the more significant the innovation needed. From the very beginning of our work, we have been convinced that for research universities to realize their full potential, they must attack the world’s biggest problems, and this notion is increasingly being embraced throughout academia.

“In many ways, universities are ready to take on the daunting challenge before them, but there is, we feel, a missing ingredient: entrepreneurial thinking. The impact of innovation increases when entrepreneurs are involved. They supply the spark, the passion, and the commitment that inspires creative people to come together and achieve extraordinary things.

“We see entrepreneurship as fully consonant with the aims of the modern university, in all its many and varied parts. ‘Entrepreneurs innovate.’ These two words by Peter Drucker summarize both his thinking on the meaning of entrepreneurship and literally hundreds of books on the subject. The elegance of the definition makes it easy to miss its profound implications. Notice there is no mention of business. Entrepreneurs are not necessarily business people. Nor do the words ‘management’ or ‘commercialization’ or ‘finance’ or even ‘money’ appear in the definition. Instead, Drucker’s definition provides a metaphorical big tent—an intellectual framework—with room for social, scientific, artistic, and, yes, even academic entrepreneurs.”

Thorp and Goldstein argue that universities must use their vast intellectual and financial resources to confront global challenges such as climate change, extreme poverty, childhood diseases, and an impending worldwide shortage of clean water.

Combining their own experiences cultivating an entrepreneurial mindset within one of the nation’s elite public universities with detailed descriptions of the approaches taken by others, the authors provide not only an urgent call to action but also a practical guide for our nation’s leading institutions to become major players in solving the world’s biggest problems.

The result is a provocative and thoughtful beginning to an important conversation among educators, their supporters and trustees, policymakers, and the public at large as to how the American research university can best meet its societal responsibilities.

All royalties from this book have been assigned by the authors to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to support innovation and entrepreneurship.