Like Chris Horn, I believe the main value of Irish third level education is the development of analytical skills. Chris cites "the skill to diagnose, identify patterns, and apply previous experiences" alongside "the capability to articulate, explain and motivate." Developing this core skills means getting the correct measure of teaching laid down alongside a proper amount of mentorship. And in that regard, mentorship can succeed only when laced with respect. Therein lies the first challenge for me--earning and holding respect. I'm going after that major deliverable by creating quality course material for the 2011/12 academic year (photo evidence provided).
If two-way respect flows between lecturer and student, then guidance, advice and consultation can flow in the form of mentorship and consultation. We've had some initial success with this idea in our third level curriculum at LIT-Clonmel when business students present ideas for academic credit in one of their modules. The cross-talk between students and lecturers creates an intriguing opportunity for ideas to gestate and emerge as practical business concepts.
I've helped to stress test business concepts for several groups of entrepreneurial students at Tipperary Institute during the past three years. As far as I know, none has emerged as a start-up. I wonder if I had outlined more specific steps for these students, would I have been perceived as a specialist advisor instead of as a third level lecturer? I've been at the coal face of three failed start-ups in Ireland. I respected the advice we received from people who reviewed the prospects of the companies involved, and I learned to respect the focus and the processes brought to the table by these specialists. Chris Horn wonders, "Rather than seeking payment in cash for your consultancy time – cash of which they will inevitably be short – instead negotiate with them for a small and reasonable amount of equity. This can be a specific number of shares; or an option, at your call, to buy a specific number of shares should you wish to do so at some time in the future, for a price agreed now. Receiving equity may also provide a preferential personal tax treatment over cash paid to you as income." An interesting idea.
There is another instrument I've seen that could be leveraged to help third level academics to nurture start-ups that have set up shop outside of the classroom. Chris Horn cites the TCD TTO when he outlines current Trinity University policy that allows any academic to spend up to 20% of daytime hours engaging with external companies or other parties for consultancy, provided that there is prior written approval from the Head of Department concerned. This assumes registering with the Tax Office as a sole trader and filing returns. Where I work, this kind of consultancy slots into the Enterprise Ireland Innovation Vouchers scheme which helps young companies pay for consultancy. In some third level institute, much of the €5,000 innovation voucher ends up as consultancy fees for the academic concerned.
I'll be looking with interest to see if the Tipperary Development Unit, the enterprise-enablement part of the Tipperary Instititue, endorses either of these concepts. I think both of them play to strengths I've seen on the academic staff. More importantly, these are the kinds of instruments Ireland needs to develop better cooperation between academia and industry in a very challenging business environment.
Reading Chris Horn's thoughts on the innovation ecosystem on his blog, July 1, 2011.