Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Reading :: A Civic Entrepreneur

A Civic Entrepreneur: The Life of Technology Visionary George Kozmetsky
By Monty Jones

George Kozmetsky (1917-2003) “is most widely known today for two accomplishments -- taking the early steps that propelled the business school at the University of Texas at Austin toward its current position as an internationally prominent institution, and playing a central role in the economic transformation of Austin from a sleepy college town in the mid-twentieth century to its present-day status as a center of high-technology research, development, and manufacturing” (p.3). In the second role, Kozmetsky founded the IC2 Institute and its unit, the Austin Technology Incubator, and played a pivotal role in bringing MCC to Austin in the early 1980s. This thick biography (461pp plus end matter) covers his entire life, from his birth as the child of Russian immigrants in Seattle to his death of ALS.

For my purposes, the most important parts of this story relate to Kozmetsky’s hand in Austin’s economic transformation. Kozmetsky was at one point one of the richest men in the US, thanks to his cofounding of Teledyne, and one unofficial reason that he was selected as Dean of UT’s business school was that the University expected him to be a donor in addition to courting donors. He did not disappoint on either count, but his personal donations often strategically advanced his own objectives. One example was the Institute for Constructive Capitalism, which he began planning in 1966 and established in 1977 (p.293), largely through his own donations. This “think and do tank,” which had “an emphasis on practical, hands-on economic development activities as well as academic research” (p.293), was meant to promote a constructive capitalism in line with Kozmetsky’s politically liberal views, involving collaboration among government, business, education, and labor (p.297). The term “capitalism” fell out of favor, so in 1985 the Institute received a new name: the IC2 Institute (named for innovation, creativity, and capital) (p.305).

IC2 evolved over the years. Originally, its goals were to “underwrite advanced research on issues such as determining the role of capitalism in society, encouraging business enterprises to contribute more toward solving societal problems and improving life, nurturing entrepreneurship and gaining a better understanding of the role of small business in caapitalist society, and promoting better public understanding of business, including improving business education in public schools.” In the 1980s, its scope shifted “into a more proactive role of spurring economic development” (p.296). In the 1990s, Kozmetsky focused on technology commercialization pursued as a commitment shared by stakeholders in government, business, education, and labor (p.297). Kozmetsky remained director until 1995; after stepping down, he remained closely involved in its leadership (p.300).

IC2 had six characteristics that, Kozmetsky said, made it a unique research organization: (1) it dealt with unstructured problems; (2) it attacked those problems with interdisciplinary “think teams”; (3) it went beyond traditional business ed subjects; (4) it linked theory and practice viaa interdisciplinary conferences, initiatives, and “experienced practitioners”; (5) it tried new ways of solving problems while remaining in a university environment; (6) it transferred research results to other institutions (pp.301-302).

IC2 developed several innovations that were eventually transferred to the business school. One was Moot Corp, a business plan competition (p.314). Another was the Master’s Degree in Science and Technology Commercialization (MSTC), which began in 1996 and was one of the earliest degree programs of its type, and was moved to the business school in 2014 (p.382). (Note: The MSTC was one of the models for the HDO program.)

Kozmetsky wanted to build up the regional capacity for developing new firms, based in the philosophy that it’s better to create new firms than to “steal” existing ones (p.336). Among his efforts was the Center for Technology Venturing, a 1988 joint project between IC2 and the business school’s Bureau of Business Research (p.336). In 1989, this Center spawned teh Austin Technology Incubator (p.337), which “provided companies with strategic advice, mentoring, financing, marketing, public relations assistance, emnployee benefit programs, and office and manufacturing space for as long as three years” (p.339). The Center for Technology Venturing also spawned the Texas Capital Network in 1989; “by 1994 it had expanded nationwide and changed its name to the Capital Network” (p.338).

Kozmetsky also “led a group of entrepreneurs in establishing the Austin Entrepreneurs’ council” in 1991 (p.345), which in turn spawned the Austin Software Council, a group that in 1998 separated from IC2; in 2002 it changed its name to the Austin Technology Council (p.347).

IC2 also did work for NASA in 1993, laying the ground for NASA’s “nationwide network of technology transfer programs by the end of the century” (p.381).

As you’ll notice, I’ve mainly focused on the Austin parts of the Kozmetsky story. But the entire book is interesting reading, painting Kozmetsky as a driven, focused, generous, yet sometimes flawed person. He was a visionary strategist and he also excelled at the “retail” parts of being dean -- maintaining relations with local and national government agencies and external stakeholders. On the other hand, he was not always effective at the “management” parts of being dean, such as identifying and addressing faculty grievances.

If you’re interested in technology, entrepreneurship, leadership, technology transfer, technology commercialization -- or Austin -- definitely pick up this book.

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