Making innovation work

July 12, 2012, 12:51 PM UTC

Founded in 1913, the Rockefeller Foundation set for itself the not-insignificant task of promoting “the well-being of mankind throughout the world.” That is has done, from the development of a Nobel-prize winning vaccine for yellow fever in the 1930s to the agriculture techniques pioneered that jump started the Green Revolution in the 1960s and beyond. In the last two years, the foundation has held innovation forums to “identify how innovation can be applied in new and interesting ways” to promote its mission. Dr. Judith Rodin, the foundation’s president and the former president of the University of Pennsylvania, spoke to Fortune about that goal earlier this month. The interview took place at the 2012 Rockefeller Innovation Forum. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.

For companies taking a stand on corporate responsibility or bold innovation, how important is it to have a very charismatic executive, one with a magnetic personality, an executive who can, for example, stand up to the pressure of the board or shareholders asking “why are we even doing this?”
The elements of leadership include a vision, courage and passion and the ability to carry it through. So a leader does not look down. He or she holds his head up and leads. It’s not accidental that it requires a visionary, passionate, courageous leader to do transformational things. That’s true in every sector. But maybe in the business sector, and maybe in politics, it’s even harder because you’re commented on every day. And so, it takes more courage.

So-called innovation hubs were such a hot idea before the recession. You heard about new cities in China or the Middle East, corridors in the United States. Given your background as a university president — universities are hubs after all – how important is that idea now? And, what’s the state of that idea from your perspective?
I think America invented it. It happened sort of serendipitously in Silicon Valley but Research Triangle was a purposeful government-driven plan. How do we link these three universities? How do we attract industry, literally, into this geographical triangle? And what kinds of public policies would be necessary to make that happen? So, they’re the two earliest examples and then I guess the Harvard-Cambridge Route 128 is third.

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Many regions in the US, Philadelphia included, tried to emulate that and take the lessons learned. And it’s a fantastic tool to spur entrepreneurship. There has to be enlightened tax policy to enable the inventions that are coming from these great universities, to spin them off into businesses that ultimately can employ people and make money. And what they do is they build—it’s a virtuous cycle. They build capacity in the neighborhoods. And then little art galleries open and cute little restaurants open and coffees hops and suddenly they’re an engine of economic development — and we’ve seen that all across the United States.

That’s the old side of economic development. The first time I went to China as President of the University of Pennsylvania, [General Secretary] Jiang Zemin said to me, “I want to create 197 new research universities to foster innovation.” How he ever got to 197, I don’t know but now it’s 15, 16 years and later they are really close. So it definitely is an important model. We can’t let that go in the United States.

How could that possibly play out here, in New York City?
It will play out. It is playing out. In upstate New York, the governor is working up in Syracuse and Buffalo toward repurposing manufacturing. We’re seeing it obviously in New York in what is the mega-play of all time to have to a national — a global competition to how to bring in science and engineering universities to New York City. The mayor, I think correctly, recognized that it wasn’t enough to focus and rely on the financial sector or even the creative sector which is the second highest [sector for] economic growth. So, an innovation hub on steroids is being created, but it’s the same conceptual framework: lighten government, create the right policy, resources are deployed. It’s been recognized since the Bush report after the Second World War that the United States had decided to vest its intellectual research operations in universities rather than separately, that you had to capitalize on those engines of innovation for economic change.

What do you think about the state of the innovation conversation? You have this forum, you have TED — a lot of smart people talking to one another. Do you think there’s room to expand or do you think we sort of have enough?
Our idea is less about forums and more about how to engage in wider networks toward innovation. So, this at forum and last year’s and the ones we will do annually everybody is innovating together. Last year it was an innovation process on framing new problems. This year is an innovation process you’ve seen. Next year something different again. So, they’re acting—they’re not just talking.

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We’re going to fund as we did last year a lot of these ideas either through global challenges or through just putting grants out to things we heard about that we think are interesting and scalable. We are privileged to be able to not just talk about it but implement. We fund lots of crowdsourcing platforms, we collaborate all the time. The idea is in the 21st century, innovation is everywhere. The laboratory is everywhere. So, we’re less about the vehicle, whether it’s the forum of the this or the that, and more about how do you open up and source the innovation potential of more people in more places around the world. That’s our goal.