Illustrated by Christine Hipp

Entrepreneurs bridge the gap between innovation and the marketplace. A new emphasis on entrepreneurship at UC Santa Cruz highlights the importance of this connection.

Narinder Kapany, known as the father of fiber optics, recently donated $500,000 to the Jack Baskin School of Engineering (Jack Baskin) to establish an endowed chair of entrepreneurship.

“My association with bright UCSC students and visiting lectureship by established entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, corporate lawyers, patent attorneys, financial experts and marketing persons made the entire process very attractive to me,” Kapany said.

The creation of an endowed chair will increase the opportunities for UCSC students to learn entrepreneurial skills.

“[The chair] can use [the endowment] to cede research, or they can use it for travel, or they can use it to bring in visitors,” said Arthur Ramirez, the dean of engineering at Jack Baskin. “It’s money that’s fairly unrestricted by other programmatic needs that they can use to develop the program.”

The creation of the chair required not only the donation, but also the approval of the campus provost, Alison Galloway. This reflects the university’s support of programs that teach students how to manage technology and information, Ramirez said.

That the chair was established through the school of engineering is no coincidence. Ramirez said entrepreneurship skills are highly useful to engineers, who design much of the technology demanded by the modern marketplace.

“Entrepreneurship has become one of the most commonly used routes to bring technology into the marketplace,” Ramirez said, “but it requires a different set of skills. It overlaps with traditional management, but an entrepreneur is a different kind of manager than you would find in a big corporation. And so, just like regular management need to be taught, we thought entrepreneurship would be a good match for this campus.”

Although entrepreneurship is not restricted to the field of engineering, the donation was given to Jack Baskin because it has a history of encouraging entrepreneurship.

“We’ve had the plurality of entrepreneurship activities,” Ramirez said. “We started the center of entrepreneurship two years ago, and there are several faculty and students in engineering who have started companies. I wouldn’t say the majority, but I think there’s more entrepreneurship activity in engineering than any of the other divisions.”

In addition, the Technology and Information Management (TIM) program is part of the school of engineering. This program offers instructional courses on technology and information management, which are integral parts of entrepreneurship in the sciences.

“These days, [science and technology] are the quickest routes to commercialization,” said Brent Haddad, associate dean of engineering for technology management. “Some of the obvious connections to the private sector will come out of engineering, chemistry, biochemistry and so forth because they’ll be medical and electronics applications.”

Kapany typifies a scientist who used entrepreneurship to move technology that he developed into the marketplace. His innovation in fiber optics revolutionized communication technology in the 1970s, and continues to have a major impact on computer networking and telecommunication technologies today.

“His own life provides a prime example of that because he did some of the seminal, original research on fiber optics,” Haddad said. “And then he was able to move that into the private sector and really change electronics by introducing these amazing innovations that took hold and became important products used all over the world.”

During the 1970s, Kapany worked at UCSC as a research professor. While at UCSC, Kapany taught courses in entrepreneurship. This was ahead of his time, Ramirez said.

“[Kapany] is a pretty inventive guy,” Ramirez said. “He invented the idea of bending light, carrying light in a very pure fiber, but then he went on to create companies after that.”

UCSC started to focus on entrepreneurship research soon after its founding, Haddad said. Kapany’s presence at UCSC enhanced this focus.

“[Kapany] saw the importance of moving good ideas out of the laboratories and universities and into broader use,” Haddad said. “There are uncounted great ideas that emerge from universities that just don’t go anywhere outside of universities … Dr. Kapany realized this is an area where you could actually take productive steps to move those good ideas into broader use, and everybody would benefit if we did.”

Kapany is most closely aligned with engineering, Ramirez said, which influenced his decision to donate to the engineering school. Entrepreneurship, however, is not exclusive to the hard sciences.

“When we think about entrepreneurship, we’re thinking campus wide,” Haddad said. “Anyone can be an entrepreneur, it’s just moving a good idea from the good idea stage to a practical application that helps society. That could be a good idea about anything.”

Haddad supports the spread of entrepreneurship to different departments on campus. “There are other areas of innovation, such as helping development projects in developing countries,” Haddad said. “That’s happening as well — here on campus, and we want to encourage that kind of entrepreneurship.”

While the possibilities created by having an endowed entrepreneurship chair are broad, currently, there are no candidates for the position.

“They have the requirement of having a PhD,” Ramirez said, “but also having been a successful entrepreneur and are at the stage in their life where they want to give back as opposed to starting another company.”

The search for someone who meets these requirement will not be taken lightly, Haddad said.

“It usually takes a long time to establish a new faculty member because the commitment is so long-term that you just want to take your time and do a really thorough job,” Haddad said. “It’s like you’re hiring a family member, you want to get it right.”