Opinion

opinion | Jack M. Wilson

Massachusetts’ profile as an innovator could reach new levels

The world is quickly transforming what used to be science fiction into everyday reality.

Long-distance cybersecurity threats from criminal elements and nation-states alike pose new challenges. Advances in the collection and mining of data tell us what we want before we even know it. Meanwhile, the human-like intelligence of robots continues to grow, enabling them to do more complex functions.

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These remarkably fast-moving trends are changing how we think and constantly creating fresh challenges. In all three areas — cybersecurity, Big Data, and robotics — Massachusetts is in a unique position to lead the world in finding technology solutions over the next decade and beyond.

As a new governor enters office, it’s time to think boldly and differently about Massachusetts’ place in the world economy. Over the next decade, if we set up the right structures for university-industry cooperation, Massachusetts’ profile as an innovator could reach new levels.

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But it will take a new level of collaboration to get there. The answer is to create so-called “research centers of excellence” in each discipline by uniting a network of leading researchers in academia and industry to form nonprofit incubators. Such research centers would be focused on market-led advances and would be explicitly tied to a university or group of universities. The critical mass of brainpower at these new entities, and the innovations they develop, would re-enforce Massachusetts as a global innovation leader and a magnet for the best talent from around the world.

Research centers aren’t a new concept — California already has the very successful Gray Davis Institutes for Science and Innovation that emphasizes a multi-disciplinary approach to problem-solving. Massachusetts has used state resources to stamp its brand on the life sciences sector with a $1 billion, 10-year commitment. One important result has been the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, which has bolstered the ecosystem in the state with funding for startups and infrastructure.

Now imagine if an industry-led approach, with initial seed support from the state, were applied to Big Data, where hundreds of local companies are pushing the boundaries of data management, analytics, and visualization. A Big Data research center of excellence would spur innovation, and even more important for the local economy, help fill the talent pipeline for best-in-class data analysts and data scientists — and would put the region in a more competitive position for federal funding.

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Experience has shown that state funding and industry-academe-government partnerships are critical in attracting external funding from federal agencies. The creation of the Life Sciences Center, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, and the Innovation Institute at MassTech, as well as similar efforts in competitor states has led to increased success in acquisition of federal funding.

Massachusetts already garners more than an average share of this funding. The bad news is that other states are organizing themselves better to compete for these funds — as we saw when the first two rounds of federal Advanced Manufacturing Partnership funding were awarded elsewhere.

Cybersecurity is another natural opportunity for a research center of excellence. Already a nonprofit consortium, the Advanced Cyber Security Center, has been launched, situated in Bedford, bringing together experts from industry, universities, and government to address cybersecurity threats. In robotics, Massachusetts has a fast-growing cluster, including some of the leading companies in the world.

There’s a strategic advantage to focusing on disciplines like cybersecurity, Big Data, and robotics because they all service multiple industries. A consortium on Big Data would benefit far more than just the tech sector — it would also bolster the likes of financial services, biotech, health care, retail, and government.

A commitment from the Commonwealth for, say, $50 million over five years for a research center would require three times that in financial support from industry players seeking to pioneer advanced technologies and rub shoulders with the talent that comes with it. Importantly, Massachusetts would not be picking industry winners. Instead, the state would break down university and industry silos while helping to create world-leading expertise in several vital, cross-disciplinary areas.

It would also help address the strong and growing need for a Massachusetts workforce with new skills and talent in rapidly evolving areas. Local research indicates Big Data is expected to drive the creation of several thousand new data scientist positions by 2018 in Massachusetts, and many times that number in “data-savvy” managerial jobs. Cybersecurity positions across industries are experiencing a boom, and hiring managers are finding them difficult to fill. And the advances in robotics are creating a heavy demand for talented engineers.

Making investments in building research centers across the state could generate an economic impact that would help boost local innovation outside of Boston and Cambridge. And there’s no question that successful research centers would attract additional investment from leading companies around the country and the world.

Jack M. Wilson is professor of higher education, emerging technologies, and innovation at UMass-Lowell. He is president emeritus of the University of Massachusetts system.
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