A shared concern for the health of the United States’ innovation ecosystem, and uncommon career paths, are what brought together the two instructors for the upcoming MITx MOOC, 3.086x Innovation and Commercialization.

Eugene Fitzgerald

Eugene Fitzgerald (Photo: Eugene Fitzgerald)

Although both Andreas Wankerl and Eugene Fitzgerald earned their PhD’s in the sciences from Cornell University, each decided to work in industry rather than pursuing an academic career. Wankerl earned his doctorate in Electrical Engineering but managed international sales in the semiconductor industry, while Fitzgerald, now an MIT Professor of Materials Science, began his career in AT&T Bell Labs.

“We both had this instinctive desire to be closer to the market—closer to where innovation finds its real expression,” explained Wankerl. “When I met Gene, he had just arrived at MIT to further advance his work from Bell Labs. I sold him a pretty significant piece of semiconductor equipment, and we struck up a conversation. What we quickly discovered was that not only did we have the same thesis advisor at Cornell, but we shared a lot of the same ideas.”

Their meeting sparked a decade-long conversation about the true nature of innovation, which culminated in their teaching a course together and collaborating on a book, Inside Real Innovation: How the Right Approach Can Move Ideas from R&D to Market – And Get the Economy Moving. Their work has recently been cited by the White House as a key guide for shaping the national debate on how to innovate more effectively in the United States.

Both Wankerl and Fitzgerald believe that there is a serious problem in how innovation is taught and understood in America. They hope that their course will impact not only U.S. decision makers—CEOs and policymakers—but also help to create a stronger culture of innovation.

“If we can help people reconceive innovation, they will approach it correctly and address the growing gap between the early research in the universities and what happens in the marketplace,” stated Fitzgerald. “This is a gap that’s wider than ever before, which makes it extremely difficult for universities to choose the right problems to focus on, and leaves corporations without a rich set of research to commercialize.”

Andreas Wankerl (Photo: Andreas Wankerl)

Andreas Wankerl (Photo: Andreas Wankerl)

Not content to merely teach their ideas, Wankerl and Fitzgerald have also created an organization, called the Innovation Interface, to address the problem. “We saw that corporations weren’t investing in the future anymore. They were very short-term focused,” said Wankerl, who is Operations Director of Innovation Interface. “We help promote innovation by bringing together university research expertise and corporate skills.”

Market forces over the past thirty years, argue Wankerl and Fitzgerald, have shifted how innovation works. “In the old days, PhD programs provided the talent, but the real work was done in the corporate lab,” Fitzgerald noted. “Places like Bell Labs and IBM in the 50’s and 60’s, where you had a diverse set of engineers who were finding ways to implement innovation on a larger scale, solving problems that were embedded in practical systems.”

Today, says Fitzgerald, global competition has forced U.S. corporations to shift from innovation to operational excellence. Over time, this has led to the erosion of those corporate research labs whose innovations overlapped with government investments in university research.

Today’s economy needs to return to a more active governmental role in driving research, says Fitzgerald. “Innovations like computer chips and the Internet were enabled by government investment in basic research,” he explained. “These are the kind of fundamental innovations that can result in decades of national economic expansion, but they need research funding to evolve, and they often take 10 to 15 years to reach the market. For most corporations, it’s impossible to justify a research investment with such a long horizon. But for a government, the sector in which the investment returns is irrelevant, so long as there’s some type of innovation. The free market guarantees a government’s return on investment.”

Both professors are excited by the opportunity to present the ideas in their course through MITx. “We realized that with some adaptations, we could effectively bring the course to the required level and extend the reach of these ideas to a much broader audience.”

They’re careful to note that adapting the course for online consumption has not diluted its rigor. “This is the same course that we’ve been teaching to advanced-level MIT graduate students for years. It’s a very focused and complex set of ideas. But unlike a lot of engineering courses, it’s not so much about the retention of material. We are really trying to develop a way of thinking—to help students see, through guided exercises, that innovation is never a clear, linear process. It’s often highly iterative. Technology is constantly being shaped and prodded in different directions by the market, as new benefits and advantages shift. Markets change, and the application of technologies change with them.”

Fitzgerald cites Thomas Edison as the classic example of a true innovator, who mastered not simply the technical aspects of an invention, but also the crucial link to its application and implementation in business. This combination of skills helped him determine which technical path to pursue and led to such remarkable innovations as the electrification of the United States.  It is precisely this unique combination of technical and business skills that 3.086x Innovation and Commercialization strives to teach. The course starts September 2013 and lasts for 13 weeks.