Field Notes: Fostering Innovation at Texas Universities

An engineer prints a prototype model on a 3d printer in a laboratory

Field Notes is a series of TIP Strategies interviews with leaders across the country exploring pressing economic, workforce, and community development issues.

In early 2023, the Texas Higher Education Foundation engaged TIP Strategies and Research Bridge Partners to develop a statewide Tech Innovation and Commercialization Plan. Funded with a grant from the US Economic Development Administration, the strategic planning process is bringing together higher education leaders, economic developers, investors, and industry representatives to share their insights. We invited the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s Senior Director for Strategic Initiatives and Engagement, Jaclyn Le, to share more about the strategic planning process underway.

Q1. Why is research and innovation at higher education institutions important to economic growth?

In higher education, we often talk about our institutions being engines for economic growth and development. In addition to our role in strengthening the talent pipeline, higher education is also a major driver of research, development, and innovation. Researchers across the country are developing cutting-edge technologies and discoveries that can change lives. The role of higher education in fostering innovation is critical for our state’s long-term economic prosperity and the opportunities it offers to Texans.

However, a significant portion of research conducted at higher education institutions never reaches the market. Research universities often do not prioritize innovation and commercialization outcomes as key indicators of their success. This means Texas is not fully leveraging the potential of our research institutions for economic development. The research and development (R&D) function of universities can often be overlooked, but it is critical to our society and economy.

Q2. Why is now the right time to rethink technology transfer and commercialization in Texas?

In January 2022, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board adopted a new strategic plan for higher education called Building a Talent Strong Texas. This new plan recognizes that if Texas is to compete at the frontiers of knowledge, technology, and discovery, a more substantial R&D infrastructure is needed, one that will support more colleges and universities in attracting major investments of private capital and federal grants. Our renewed focus on R&D and innovation at the state level also aligns with a period in which there is significant federal funding and commitment toward improving tech development and innovation nationwide.

Texas has seen tremendous growth in R&D activity within higher education. We have 11 Research 1 (R1) institutions in Texas, tying us with California and New York for the most R1s in a single state. All but two of Texas R1s are public institutions, the highest number among the three states. To capitalize on the state’s research assets and ensure our continued competitiveness, we must evolve our understanding of, and connections to, innovation ecosystems, identify best practices for tech transfer, and develop new strategies to encourage creative collaborations and successful commercialization. A statewide technology innovation and commercialization plan will allow Texas universities, industry, and government agencies to work together more strategically and cohesively.

Q3. What are some themes you’re seeing in the regional roundtables and interviews being conducted across the state?

To-date, we’ve co-hosted 9 regional roundtables with economic development organizations across the state and conducted over 40 interviews. In total, we’ve directly engaged over 250 individuals in the strategic planning process. It has been exciting and encouraging to see the interest and enthusiasm in this topic from stakeholders. Three themes have emerged so far.

First, there’s a need to reframe how we approach R&D for successful commercialization. Instead of looking for end users of a technology or discovery after it has been developed, higher education can take a more demand-driven approach. This shift from a “push” model to a “market pull” mindset requires greater engagement with industry, investors, and other commercialization partners earlier in the process. Not all R&D is viable for commercialization, nor does it need to be. For intellectual property (IP) where commercial viability is the goal, starting with an industry problem or a specific market demand can lead to more practical pathways for successful commercialization, attracting capital and sustaining startup companies.

Second, to be more demand-driven, it’s crucial to validate IP technically and commercially. There’s a resource gap in higher education, especially in market validation. This gap includes proof of concept funding to test and evaluate IP. It also involves tapping into industry expert panels, providing support for due diligence, expediting licensing processes, and adopting business-friendly contract terms. If we expect universities to take a more demand-driven approach to innovation and commercialization, then we also need to support these institutions in building their capacity and infrastructure for market validation.

Third, developing and retaining a robust pipeline of STEM and entrepreneurial talent is essential for commercializing university IP. Increasing the number of research doctorates is a priority for Texas. In addition to more researchers, we also need talent to test and evaluate IP, pitch ideas to investors, and run startups. A lack of executive-level talent and serial entrepreneurs to form and run startups is a challenge to commercializing IP. Most faculty are reluctant to leave academia for leadership roles in startup companies, and the incentives for prioritizing commercialization activities are often lacking. We need more people and pathways for the research to evolve into commercialized products beyond university labs.

Q4. How does this work connect to economic development?

Global competitiveness is fueled by innovation and talent. To foster a healthy innovation ecosystem, we need robust research institutions and supportive policies that facilitate the exchange of ideas between academia and industry. It is difficult to imagine a thriving innovation ecosystem without the presence of a university.

But there is not a direct link between increased university innovation and commercialization and local economic benefit. Indeed, universities are motivated to support the success of their inventions and startups no matter where they go. In some cases, the most attractive place to build a new product or start a new business is not in Texas. How do we make more university IP “sticky” so that Texans benefit from the incredible work in our public institutions? That’s an economic development question. We’re interested in strengthening higher education’s connection to existing innovation efforts statewide so that the best place for university ideas and inventions to grow and thrive is in Texas. By offering incentives and forging connections with the state’s target industries, we can encourage research, talent, and companies to stay and create more opportunities for economic growth in Texas.

Q5. How do you hope the Tech Innovation and Commercialization Plan will affect change in Texas?

This project has been driven by data, shaped by a wide range of stakeholders, and built on best practices. It’s bringing a renewed focus to easing processes within technology transfer offices, strengthening innovation ecosystem assets, and addressing other foundational supports to facilitate a strong talent base for the innovation economy. With increased collaboration and coordination, we have the scale, talent, and innovation assets required for success. There is exciting work on the horizon for Texas. What we do today will play a deciding role in shaping our state’s long-term prosperity and competitiveness.

Jaclyn Le photo

Jaclyn Le is Senior Director for Strategic Initiatives & Engagement at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB). She is responsible for strategic planning, stakeholder engagement, corporate partnerships, and other priorities related to the state’s strategic plan for higher education, Building a Talent Strong Texas. Jaclyn also supports the Texas Higher Education Foundation, the official nonprofit partner to the THECB.

Her career has spanned K–12, higher education, and workforce development where she has focused on building partnerships across the social, public, and private sectors. Prior to joining THECB, Jaclyn was Senior Manager of Advisory Services at Jobs for the Future (JFF), where she managed a portfolio of advisory engagements with Fortune 1000 companies and designed talent strategies to support equitable economic advancement of workers and learners. Earlier in her career, Jaclyn was an analyst at the Wallace Foundation specializing in the design and implementation of national philanthropic initiatives focused on evidence-based education policy, research, and programmatic improvements.

Jaclyn received a Master of Business Administration from the McCombs School of Business and a Master of Public Affairs at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science with University Distinction from Stanford University.

Scroll to Top