Last month one of the best known and respected geneticists, Cynthia Kenyon (login to view Dr. Kenyon’s profile Here), left the University of California San Francisco (login to view UCSF profile Here) and joined the California Life Company (Calico), a startup backed by Google. She joins a roster of other scientists at the startup which is reportedly focused upon the bold challenge of mitigating and curing aging and associated diseases. Kenyon will retain her affiliation with UCSF as Professor Emeritus. It is often common to see faculty either maintain, reduce or place their academic post on hold while founding a startup company spinning out from their home university.
Collective IP believes this is a great development, along with other examples of high profile faculty working with startups. We are passionate advocates for academics, researchers, post-docs, graduate students, undergraduates and dropouts having the courage, tenacity, and entrepreneurial spirit to start or join new companies that will bring transformative research out of the labs and into the general public. And, if anyone can reverse aging its Kenyon with the help of Google!
We suggest the mission of research institutions must include helping to commercialize research and create spinout companies. The work of educating undergraduates is increasingly happening with technological assistance (see for example Coursera and a dozen plus similar online environments). This frees up faculty, to a degree, but if at the end of the day the advantages of web-based learning simply increases the “publish or perish” paradigm these advances in education transmission will be of little benefit to the wider economy and society. As we have previously noted, academics should be incentivized to participate in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, and that means allowing them to join or start companies but be able to return to the university later, whether or not the company is successful.
We wish Kenyon, and Calico, great success in their noble mission. But if it doesn’t work out — startups are by their nature extremely risky (and Calico in particular is “the ultimate moonshot” in the words of Larry Page) — we know that Kenyon can return to UCSF and be able to share not just her research expertise but the valuable lessons she learned from startup life, ideally helping to foster a new generation of UCSF researchers to go out and start companies, including the “moon shots”.