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Startup CTO explains why tech leaders should always keep an eye on academia
It’s easy to forget that some of the biggest tech companies today began on a humble college campus. Veriflow Co-founder & CTO Brighten Godfrey explains why tech leaders should always keep an eye on academia.
The Enterprisers Project (TEP): When it comes to innovation, people often think of startups as opposed to universities. How are universities pushing the tech envelope?
Brighten Godfrey: Many of those startups were founded on university research. Soon after I joined the University of Illinois as an assistant professor in 2009, I taught a course where I worked with a student on a class research project. That was the seed of an idea that became a lab project with several graduate students and then an active research area across multiple universities. Ultimately, three of us founded a startup based on the technology that launched its product in November.
Actually, mine is a very common story. There are too many to list, but think of companies like Akamai that pioneered the content distribution network based on university research; or the Xen hypervisor out of Cambridge that’s now used by Amazon EC2 and other cloud providers; or that pair of grad students who developed the PageRank algorithm and founded a little company called Google.
TEP: How do university tech innovations typically make it to the marketplace?
Godfrey: Universities are working harder than ever to encourage startups, through entrepreneurship programs and incubators like EnterpriseWorks here at Illinois. Venture capital firms and government programs help provide resources. Our startup took funding from VCs as well as the DoD and National Science Foundation’s SBIR programs.
Open source has become another fantastic path to adopting innovations. Apache Spark and Mesos, for example, both began as projects at Berkeley.
Some work is more fundamental, the kind of crazy ideas that try to look toward a 10, 20, or 40-year horizon. Many of these projects don’t pan out, of course, but some of them change the direction of whole industries as the ARPANET project did when it became the Internet. This kind of work tends to happen at universities because it’s simply beyond the time horizon and risk tolerance that even very forward-looking venture capital can handle.
TEP: What is the best way for CIOs to harness the power of academia?
Godfrey: Let’s start with what matters most, and that’s people. Universities here in the United States attract the best from around the whole world – both students and faculty. Especially as we move to a more software-driven world, our students are essential to fuel that transformation. Some tech-focused companies are even establishing their own research labs on university campuses to create a pipeline for that talent.
We also know our limitations, though, as researchers in a university environment. We need to look to the industry for an understanding of real-world challenges. I think you’ll find universities are eager to engage with enterprises and learn about their needs and perhaps solve a difficult problem. Some of that engagement is happening at academic conferences like ACM SIGCOMM, which has an “Experience Track” that publishes papers describing commercially-deployed technology, or at primarily enterprise-focused conferences like the Open Networking User Group that have invited academics into the conversation.
I’d like to add that learning is a two-way street – CIOs and their staff can learn from academics about new technology. We’re lucky to have a great way to do that now through online courses. For example, we run a cloud networking course through Coursera where about 30,000 have enrolled and many of those are enterprise IT professionals with years of experience who want to learn how modern hyperscale cloud networks work.
TEP: How will universities help inform the Internet of Things and other future technologies?
Godfrey: That’s a great example because IoT is not just one startup, it’s a whole field that might play out over a decade or more. And there are huge challenges from the physical miniaturization of technology to Internet-wide network security as we saw with the largest ever DDoS attack that used the IoT-focused Mirai malware in October. I won’t pretend to know how this technology will develop, but I can bet it will be an exciting collaboration between universities and the technology industry.