Not so long ago, universities had two key missions: to educate and to generate knowledge. A third one has recently been added: to be agents of change in the country through innovation and entrepreneurship activities. This requires robust mechanisms for generating, protecting and exploiting intellectual property, including patents, trade secrets and copyrights.
The WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) Global Innovation ranking positions Mexico in 56th place out of 126 countries analyzed, reflecting its notable lag in intellectual property development. If we consider patents as one of the indicators of technological success, our country has remained at the lower end the OECD patent database. According to figures from the Mexican Institute of Intellectual Property, just 8% of patent applications belong to Mexican nationals. The meager inventive value of these patents is reflected in the low proportion - around 1 in 10 - that extends its protection to countries such as the United States, Japan, the European Union, or WIPO.
The contribution of academic institutions is pivotal in Mexico, since their patent filing levels, by inventors or organizations based in our country, are higher than those of industry. When universities serve as the cornerstone of innovation in our country, a national policy in this regard would consolidate the ties between academia and industry; increase the resources allocated to science, technology and innovation; and bring about institutional and cultural change to protect intellectual property and knowledge commercialization. However, of all the diverse solutions, the one that is gaining the most relevance is the trend towards a convergence of science.
Convergence, described by MIT as the next scientific revolution, is defined as the integration of life sciences, engineering, physical sciences, computation, social sciences and the humanities to solve problems and complex research questions. The positive impact of convergence falls to two main areas: firstly, the connection and (re)combination of multiple, disparate elements – which could be disciplines, technologies or methods - tend to generate more relevant innovations; and secondly, by channeling fundamental insight towards defined problems and challenges, convergence drives technological capabilities and the commercial exploitation of knowledge.
If we look around us, these transdisciplinary intersections comprise the essence of many current and future advancements. In the field of life sciences, some of the convergence hotspots are regenerative medicine, synthetic biology, organs-on-a-chip and cancer immunotherapies, among many others.
In order to encourage collaboration between engineers, physicists, scientists, data specialists and social science researchers, diverse universities, mainly in the United States, have created convergent research centers, including the Wyss Institute (Harvard University), Koch Institute and Media Lab (MIT), Biodesign Institute (Arizona State University), Bio-X (Stanford University), and Kilachand Center (Boston University). Diverse studies reveal the different management, research, intellectual property generation, collaboration and technology transfer methods for creating convergent research centers.
An archetypic convergence center is the Hansjörg Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. The Wyss Institute was created in 2009 with the belief that maximizing the impact of scientific and technological advancements is only possible if they leave the laboratory. Its disciplinary diversity is reflected in the platforms that support its research and development efforts: adaptive material technologies, bioinspired soft robotics, biomimetic microsystems, immuno-materials, living cellular devices, molecular robotics, synthetic biology and 3D organ engineering. Within and between these platforms, academics, on-site personnel with industrial experience and resident entrepreneurs collaborate to generate knowledge, convert it into intellectual property and exploit it commercially. The success of the institute’s convergence model is reflected in its 2,046 publications, 2,550 patent filings, 50 technology licenses and 27 startups to date.
In our country, an example of a convergence initiative is Tecnológico de Monterrey’s action-research plan "Research that Transforms Lives". By combining the integration of multiple disciplines with an open innovation ecosystem, this global program seeks to generate innovative high-impact solutions for Mexico’s economic and social development. Some of the specific projects underway are: robotic exoskeletons, cell regeneration with artificial corneas, nanosensors, and nanometric surgical meshes. In addition, as part of Tec de Monterrey’s new 2030 vision, TecSalud is contemplating the execution of two converging high-impact health initiatives for Mexicans: the genome sequencing of 100 thousand Mexicans and the development of cell and regenerative therapies.
Convergence centers undoubtedly have the potential to act as catalysts for change aimed at maximizing the impact on society of the knowledge generated in academic institutions. Its impact is intensified by permeating the effects of the integration of multiple fields of expertise and the formation of highly heterogeneous collaborative networks across innovation ecosystems. However, the path to convergence is not easy, since it involves a paradigm shift that clashes directly with the traditional disciplinary-silo organizational structure of academic institutions.
The opportunities and needs for high-impact innovation are immeasurable. This is where academic institutions can lead the shift towards convergence as a starting point for the scientific, technological and commercial exploitation of new knowledge, thereby triggering the economic and social development of regions and countries.
EGADE Business School, through the Innovation and Entrepreneurship research group, has garnered the capacities to understand, map and measure the phenomenon of convergence and transdisciplinarity within the context of our country.