Entrepreneurial Thinking

Jack Wilson has some ambitious goals for the five-school University of Massachusetts system he now leads. He wants UMass to be more visible and much more of a force in economic development initiatives across the state. In a word, he wants the school to be indispensable to the Commonwealth.

Since being named president of UMass this past spring, Jack Wilson has been busy, as he put it, "telling our story.î

He has spoken to business and civic groups from one end to the state to the other. He’s penned op-ed pieces for publications ranging from The Republican to Mass High Tech magazine. And he’s appeared before editorial boards at most of the state’s major publications.

The blitz has a purpose, Wilson told BusinessWest: making a distinct connection between the five-campus university and economic development efforts in the Commonwealth. The connection has always been there, he said — thousands of jobs have come out of research at the university and thousands more have been retained through various workforce initiatives — but more people need to understand it and take part in it.

"The path to economic and social development in the state goes through UMass,î he explained, using phrases he would repeat often. "We see the university as an indispensable partner in economic development of the Commonwealth.

"When you look at economic development across the United States, you quickly discover that it goes best in an area around outstanding university research universities,î he continued, citing Research Triangle Park in North Carolina and Silicon Valley as just two examples. "The same holds true in Massachusetts; if you took UMass out of the picture, 90% of the research that took place outside of Route 128 would disappear.î

As he pushes his message, Wilson is also taking steps to see that the rhetoric becomes reality. To make UMass the economic development engine he envisions, it must have more and better partnerships — with business, government, non-profits, other colleges and universities, and its own alumni.

Such partnerships have led to success stories involving all five campuses, he said, citing the collaboration between UMass-Amherst and Baystate Health System in the creation of a biosciences research center as just one example.

"We want to partner will all sorts of community groups,î he said. "This could be industry giants like Raytheon, or it could be entities like the Boston public schools, which we’re joining in a math/science partnership that’s part of a $12 million externally funded program high-quality match and science opportunities,î he said. "We have another one called the Urban Scholars Program, in which we’re partnered with community groups focused on minority groups and providing them with educational opportunities.î

While the partners and the specific missions vary, the common denominator is economic development, said Wilson, noting that efforts in this realm include everything from new job creation to making sure the state’s workforce can take on the jobs of today — and tomorrow.

Wilson said he has a number of specific and general goals for the university. For starters, he wants to double the amount of public and private research grants received by the university — from the current $300 million to $600 million, perhaps within five years. He also wants to take the school’s endowment, currently at $170 million, to new heights.

Meanwhile, he wants to create what he called a "unified brandî for the university. By this, he meant that current students and faculty members, as well as alumni of the five schools in the UMass system will think of themselves as part of a larger entity, rather than graduates of a specific school.

With new strategic alliances, and an increasingly entrepreneurial approach within the university itself, UMass can emerge as one of the nation’s premier public university systems, said Wilson, adding that he is committed to making this happen.

"We want to be a willing partner in social and economic development most broadly construed,î he said, "not narrowly construed.î

Degrees of Progress

After he was named interim president of UMass following the resignation of William Bulger in September 2003, Wilson said he had to think long and hard about whether he wanted to pursue the job on a permanent basis.

"To be honest, if they had offered me a permanent position at that time, I would have declined, because it wasn’t clear to me that we had the support it would take to be successful,î he said, referring to both public and private constituencies. "It wasn’t until I worked three and four months and I felt that the situation was coming together nicely and that we were going to have the support from the business community and we were going to have the support from the governor’s office, the Legislature, and the alumni, that I decided to become a candidate.î

That support came in a number of forms, he explained, noting the Legislature made a strong commitment in the budget, especially with an appropriation for long-unfunded contractual raises for faculty and staff, and the governor included a number of capital projects. Meanwhile, Wilson noted a strong measure of support from members of the business community, many of whom he worked with during creation of report titled Choosing to Lead: The Race for National R&D Leadership and New Economy Jobs.

Touted as the Massachusetts Technology Road Map, the report was organized by Mass Insight Corp., a Boston-based public policy firm, and Batelle, an Ohio-based economic development consulting firm. It concluded that UMass is one of the state’s key economic drivers, a resource that should be exploited for new business development and job creation.

"I sat down with many different constituencies, and had some rather frank discussions about where they want this university to be, and how it fits in with development strategies in the Commonwealth,î Wilson said. "I was very pleasantly surprised to find that there was a great deal of bi-partisan support for a strong state university.

"These things are like a snowball,î he went on. "It starts small and it keeps getting bigger and bigger, and at some point you say, ëthis is going in the right direction, let’s keep it going.’î

With such commitments, Wilson said the university can proceed with confidence in its efforts to take a larger role in economic development efforts across the Commonwealth. And as he moves ahead with his plans, Wilson can call on many of his own experiences for inspiration.

Indeed, Wilson knows what it takes to bring a concept through the university research stage, the venture-capital-raising stage, into development, and then through the process of going public. He did just that at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. While working there as the J. Erik Johnson ’22 Distinguished Professor of Physics, Engineering Science, Information Technology, and Management, he spun off a software development company called ILINC.

The company was built through three rounds of venture capital from Exponential Investors, Intel Corporation, the New York State Science and Technology Foundation, and GeoCapital Investors. The venture, known later as LearnLinc, eventually merged with Allan Communications and Gilat Communications to form the publicly traded Mentergy Corporation.

That business venture came as Wilson was filling his resume with achievements in academia, in both the classroom and administration.

Wilson earned a degree in Physics from Thiel College in Greenville, Pa., and his Ph.D. from Kent State University. He taught physics at Sam Houston State University, and eventually served as chairman of the Physics Department and director of the Division of Chemistry, Physics, and Physical Sciences.

He then moved to the University of Maryland, where he taught physics and science, and later to Rensselaer, where he served in a variety of positions. These included acting provost, acting dean of Faculty, dean of Undergraduate and Continuing Education, director of the Lois J. and Harlan E. Anderson Center for Innovation in Undergraduate Education, and co-director of the Severino Center for Technological Entrepreneurship.

He exited LearnLinc in 2000, at the height of the tech market and just before the sector turned south. He pocketed more than enough to retire, but wasn’t ready to do so. Instead, he went looking for a new challenge, and found one when he came to UMass to bolster its fledgling online education initiative.

He took a program with only a handful of courses and students and guided it to exponential growth. When he become interim president, the online program served nearly 15,000 students and involved 40 different degree and certificate programs.

It was this diverse background, including many levels of work in academia and business over a 35-year career, that made Wilson a logical choice for interim and then permanent president at the university. And it is this mix that he believes will help in the process of creating the strategic alliances he says are crucial to the school’s continued growth and development.

Stern Test

There are five schools in the UMass system — Amherst, Boston, Dartmouth, Lowell, and Worcester (UMass Medical) — and Wilson says each one has made significant contributions to their respective regions — and the state as a whole — and will look to increase its involvement in the years to come.

The day he spoke with BusinessWest, Wilson also addressed business groups in the New Bedford-Fall River region of the state, now known collectively as the South Coast. The message delivered there was similar to the one being sent across the state.

"I told them that we’re here to do our part; we’re willing to be your partner,î he said, adding that this same message is being across the state.

When asked how partnerships come together, Wilson cited the case of a $40 million research center created out of work at the Amherst campus. This was an initiative where all the pieces to the puzzle — university research and both public and private participation — fell into place.

Known as CASA, the Engineering Research Center for Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere, was inspired by the work of UMass-Amherst professor David McLaughlin, who devised of method of using low-level radar to radically improve weather-forecasting capabilities and also provide new tools for monitoring airborne toxins generated by pollution or terrorism.

The initiative was moved forward thanks to a $1 million gift from Amherst philanthropists John and Elizabeth Armstrong, which helped trigger $5 million in seed money from the Commonwealth and support from Massachusetts businesses. This multi-faceted support eventually led to a $17 million engineering research center grant from the National Science Foundation.

"That’s an example of what can happen when the necessary components come together,î Wilson said. "CASA shows how effective partnerships can make things happen.î

With $320 million in public and privately funded research and development, UMass ranks third in that category in Massachusetts (behind Harvard and MIT) and fourth in New England (behind Yale). It also has a faster R&D growth rate than the national average. But Wilson believes it can be doing much better, and the Mass. Insight/Battelle report echoes that sentiment.

"We want to double our research — the questions are: how fast can we get that done and do we need to do to get it done?î he said, adding that while there is no how-to manual on such initiatives, the university will start by focusing on what Wilson called its "core businesses,î while developing new ones.

"There are a number of factors involved — we want to focus on the areas where we have expertise, but also on what the specific community needs are,î he said. "We know the biomedical business is going to be very big, so we have to figure out how we’re going to play in that. We know that the marine sciences and ocean engineering are also going to be big, and we know that information technology and telecommunications will continue to be a strength. We have to gauge all our opportunities and make the most of each one.î

Wilson said there has been a gradual shift in the research arena from private schools to public schools and especially what he called the "super publics.î This has coincided with huge growth in the scale of research and, recently, a loss of market share in the Bay State.

To get those research dollars back, and to fully capitalize on the shift from private to public schools, he said, UMass must focus on strategic alliances such as the one with Baystate involving bioscience.

While endeavoring to boost research, Wilson also wants to grow the school’s endowment. He said UMass has been lagging behind other state universities in this arena, and he and UMass/Amherst Chancellor John Lombardi are forwarding plans to help the school catch up.

"Other institutions, like Michigan and Penn State have been after this a lot longer than we have,î he explained. "In fact, it’s only been in the last five years that there’s been any focus on this at all. So we have a long way to go.î

Meanwhile, he wants to strengthen the UMass ëbrand.’ He said each of the five schools has, and must maintain, its own identity, but they must work together to promote the larger entity.

Wilson drew parallels to a family.

"Siblings compete with one another,î he explained. " But they also work together for the benefit of the family, and that’s what we have here, a family.î

Overall, Wilson wants the university to become more entrepreneurial in its approach to all its ventures, and to set the bar higher in pursuit of its goals.

"We don’t want to set our sights on being average,î he said. "We want to set our sights on being one of the world’s great public universities. That means we shouldn’t be striving for national averages in anything we do. Instead, we should be comparing ourselves to the top schools and then competing with them — and we have a ways to go to get there.î

Class Act

When asked to describe his role as president of the UMass system, Wilson said it’s his job to set an overall direction for the system and provide it with the resources it needs. To do this effectively, he must keep the school in the public eye or, as he put it, continually tell its story.

This explains why Wilson has used the airwaves and publications’ op-ed pages with such frequency in recent months.

"If we don’t step up and tell our story, it’s our fault,î he said, adding that with strong visibility the school can position itself for continued support.

"It’s all about partnerships,î he stressed repeatedly. "We want people to know that we’re here and ready to work with them. That how we can reach our goals — and that’s how we can become indispensable.î

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]