by James A. Bacon

Does the University of Virginia have what it takes to become an engine of technological innovation and entrepreneurial wealth creation? Mike Lenox, professor of entrepreneurship at the Darden School of Business, thinks that it does. James Murray, a venture capitalist specializing in telecommunications and information technology, isn’t so sure. They engaged in one of the more spirited, if all too brief, debates in a Board of Visitors meeting in recent memory.

Lenox was invited to the Board Thursday to present the University’s Pan-University Entrepreneurship Initiative. While it is unrealistic to think that UVA could duplicate the success of a Berkeley or a Stanford in Silicon Valley, he said, it is reasonable to aspire to become a second-tier innovation center on the scale of a Boulder, Colorado (home to the University of Colorado.)

UVA and Charlottesville have developed a respectable innovation ecosystem, said Lenox. UVA alumni have created three billion-dollar “exits,” or business cash-outs, including Lending Tree and, most recently, Reddit. The talent exists. But would-be entrepreneurs need more support — some of which UVA can provide.

“We’ve been on this journey for 25 years,” Lenox said. Perhaps most significantly, UVA has “reimagined” its patent-licensing policies to give innovators greater incentive to transform their research into commercial enterprises. But he conceded that students and faculty with great ideas don’t know where to find the expertise to help them get off the ground. He laid out a schema for improving communications between existing centers like the Galant Center, the Batten Center, and the Manning Center, creating an entrepreneur “clubhouse” where students can connect, setting up a solutions lab, erecting a solutions building, and — admittedly still in the concept stage — forging relationships beyond Charlottesville through a Commonwealth Partnerships initiative.

Murray, a former rector and a zealous guardian of the university purse, was skeptical. “Government money can’t create good entrepreneurs any more than it can create good artists or musicians,” he said. UVA has yet to demonstrate that it can produce intellectual property that returns money to the institution. Entrepreneurship, he contended, arises from a culture of innovation and risk-taking that does not exist at UVA. People are inspired to become entrepreneurs when they see other people making money, and that’s just not happening now.

“We can expose people to entrepreneurship but we can’t teach the spark of greatness,” he said. Such a spark is unlikely to come out of the academy, he added.

While acknowledging the need for entrepreneurial inspiration, Lenox suggested that many entrepreneurial skills can be taught. There is a popular idea that entrepreneurs are big risk-takers, he said. It’s better to see them as superior appraisers of risk. Risk management, he suggested, can be taught.

Lenox argued that one of UVA’s greatest assets is its alumni base. “This university has created trillions of dollars of value through the alumni,” he said.

Paul Manning, a successful entrepreneur and investor who donated $100 million to launch a new biotech center at UVA, staked out a middle ground. Entrepreneurs need funding. Although Charlottesville is gaining recognition as a growing center of venture deals, the network of entrepreneurial capital is not well developed.

Craig Kent, CEO of UVA Health, added another wrinkle. It might be able to create an entrepreneurial culture if UVA was able to recruit more individuals with an “entrepreneurial mindset.” Manning and his biotech center “will be able to do that,” he suggested.

Shortly before Lenox made his presentation, the Board heard from two medical research scientists, one of whom the University had recruited from Northwestern University and another of whom it had enticed to stay at UVA.

Evan Scott, coming from Northwestern, is a leader in investigating inflammatory and immunological processes with the goal of designing delivery systems that target key inflammatory cell populations. John Luken, who earned his PhD at UVA and has worked here ever since, studies how the immune system contributes to degenerative neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinsons, and ALS. Both men and their research teams will be located in the state-of-the-art, Manning-funded biotech facility.

UVA has demonstrated an ability to recruit star researchers, as evidenced by its climb in the rankings of research universities over the past decade. But conducting foundational research is not the same as commercializing successful products, which requires very different skills. If UVA can crack the entrepreneurial code, it can create a lot of wealth for itself, the Charlottesville region, and Virginia. If it can’t, it will spend a lot of money chasing its own tail.

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15 responses to “UVA as Entrepreneurial Hub?”

  1. walter smith Avatar
    walter smith

    I hope TJC taped that. I would like to watch it. It sounds like one of the few BOV events where real discussion took place. I share Murray's skepticism. I understand that Prof Lenox has studied and teaches entrepreneurship, but I don't think you can "teach" that essential spark – to adapt, to learn, to work hard, to keep tinkering, to make it better, to eat peanut butter sandwiches for a year…
    There is an element that can't be "taught." It's like figuring out who to hire for sales. We had all sorts of personality tests and other predictive tools and former employers who we knew were good at training, but it still ultimately is a crap shoot.

    Reminds me of the B school joke that would get the prof fired nowadays because no one can laugh – Do you know the definition of a consultant? Someone who knows 47 positions and no women.

    That's kinda what teaching "entrepreneurship" seems like to me…

    1. Lefty665 Avatar

      Like the old saw goes: Those who can do, those who can't teach.

    2. Lefty665 Avatar

      Like the old saw goes: Those who can do, those who can't teach.

  2. Carter Melton Avatar
    Carter Melton

    I wonder if UVa's obsession with dei makes for a culture that would fully support teaching / encouraging the creation of wealth in a free-market capitalist economy. I can almost hear the chants and see the placards now expressing outrage at creating the next generation of oppressors who will exploit all of America's oppressed tribes.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      So a question Carter. Should we be giving our veterans GI school "benefits" or just give them a cash equivalent and go off and figure out how to be successful on their own? Should we even be thinking that it's the job of the military to pay for post-service "education" at higher ed?

      1. Carter Melton Avatar
        Carter Melton

        The original GI Bill made it possible for me to get through graduate school at MCV. The govt sent my benefits directly to the school, and the school had to certify that I was a current student in good standing. Worked like a charm in the early 70’s….and if it ain’t broke……

        1. Matt Adams Avatar
          Matt Adams

          Still functions the same way today. Also can gift it to your children if you're not going to use it.

          The only issue I experienced with the system was tuition assistance, they paid halfway through the system that I had already paid for.

        2. LarrytheG Avatar

          You done good with it! But my "ask" was should we just thank the veteran , give him/her the money and say " go use it for a good education" , no strings and no govt bureaucracy..just "thank you for your service and we're not going to burden you with dang govt interference and rules and you say "I'm gonna be an entrepreneur… I don't need no stinking college ed to do that!


          1. Carter Melton Avatar
            Carter Melton

            That would make the funds, in effect, a separation bonus. With the major problem we currently have filling our recruitment goals, I would favor using the money on the front end.

          2. LarrytheG Avatar


          3. LarrytheG Avatar

            Entrepreneurship, small business and the jobs it generates are a fundamental part of the economy but a high number of them fail because Entrepreneurship is a more learned skill than a natural ability for many if not most.

            So, some kids grow up with mom/dad already Entrepreneurs and get a good start, but others in families that have no entrepreneurs need training and knowledge to boost their chances of success.

            Most k-12 have no such courses and even if they did, if taught by teachers who have not been actual entrepreneurs, not near as useful as folks with actual background and experience.

            So I do like the idea for higher ed including profs that are or have been actual successful entrepreneurs and education benefits for veterans leaving the service to start new careers.

            I've known several folks that left the service and did use their GI benefits for education and careers following, but not sure any of them trained to be entrepreneurs per se.

            One got a communications job with Verizon, another a job with Cisco, and the 3rd went to night school (paid for with GI benefits) and became a successful lawyer.

            Doing volunteer taxes, this past year, I've seen what appear to be, enhanced GI benefits that pay for everything, room, board, books and living expenses. They bring their 1098T's but because the grants are higher than what College bills, they don't get an additional credit unless it's more advantageous to pay taxes on the excess benefits and then qualify for the credits.

            At any rate, very much supportive of veterans, their benefits and a path for them to get skills and education with regard to entrepreneurship. Serve your country and become an independent business owner!

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: " Murray, a former rector and a zealous guardian of the university purse, was skeptical. “Government money can’t create good entrepreneurs any more than it can create good artists or musicians,” he said."

    Actually Govt DOES help create good entrepreneurs. A lot of our modern-day technology was done with significant govt involvement from research grants to partnerships with DARPA and Navy Labs, etc. Whether it's GPS, or drones, or autonomous vehicles, the govt has supported research and development of much of what
    most of us see and use today.

    Pure entrepreneurship on an individual basis often comes from a Dad or Mom who went that way and pass on to their kids that it's an option beyond working for the "man"!

    But I'd certainly think ANY School of Business in Higher Ed would certainly have available, a focus on that aspect.

    One needs to look no further than Microsoft or Facebook or Oracle to see some of the seeds of entrepreneurship springing from High Ed.

    None other than NASA is moving more and more to private sector contractors to help guide the space program because they know more is needed than just govt workers or institutions.

  4. Lefty665 Avatar

    UVa has been the <i>"engine of technological innovation and entrepreneurial wealth creation"</i>

    It just did not come out of Darden so is subject to the not invented here syndrome. It was the product of people with actual technological and entrepreneurial skills, not B school glittering generalities.

    The company (and there may be others) is Charlottesville based Virginia Diodes (VDI). It has world wide market dominance in terahertz band (is it electricity or is it light?) millimeter wave technology. VDI operates one of the two private semi conductor fabs in Virginia. It is a vendor of mm wave diodes and develops and produces products that use them.

    VDI grew out of UVa about 20 years ago, so the sparkling new Darden vision of university generated technology and entrepreneurship spin offs is just old wine in new bottles. The BoV and Darden school have short memories. Darden: We've got a great new idea for this round thing, we'll call it a "wheel". BoV: Nah it'll never work. With insight and leadership like that UVa's future is guaranteed.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    Think about what this guy said:

    re: " Murray, a former rector and a zealous guardian of the university purse, was skeptical. “Government money can’t create good entrepreneurs any more than it can create good artists or musicians,” he said."

    How about MANY professions that Higher Ed teaches… like Engineers, Doctors, Genetics, etc, etc.. what is he saying? Is he essentially arguing against Higher Ed itself?

  6. William O'Keefe Avatar
    William O’Keefe

    First, it is all about incentives. With the right incentive structure, entrepreneurship should increase. On the other hand, how many of today's entrepreneurs are the result of entrepreneur programs?
    My guess is that it is the environment that makes the difference.

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