Two articles in recent issues of Wired (June/July) got me thinking about the potential role of PhD programs in particular with respect to facilitating business. The first article was about Ycombintor – the highly successful start-up incubator founded by Paul Graham based in Silicon Valley. The second was about the emergence of a vibrant hacker community around the Microsoft Kinect (the sensor system that allows the xbox to recognize and track people within a room without a remote).
The program that Graham has created with Y-combinator, in my opinion, resembles in parts a PhD program. Like a good PhD program, Graham focuses on identifying and then developing people. The goal is to create a founder that can develop a great business. Similarly, the goal of a PhD program is to develop researchers who can do great research. In both cases, the idea is to provide the tools, support and environments that make great business founders or great researchers. I think in both cases we are the business of
people development – not product development.
However, I think Y-combinator offers more than just people development , it creates a creative, intense, social atmosphere. It’s designed to not only create talent but teams of talent. There are not many places in the world that talented people just work on the project their interested in – together.
Graham compares the effect to a coral reef, a self-generating ecosystem whose members provide nourishment for one another. “Pick the right founders and help them—and the coral reef will just happen,” he says
This brings me to the next article about the Kinnect. There were several ancedotes within the article about how Phd students quickly embraced the Kinect to do interesting and novel stuff: Here’s an example:
A group from UC Berkeley strapped a Kinect to a quadrotor—a small helicopter with four propellers—enabling it to fly autonomously around a room. A couple of students at the University of Bundeswehr Munich attached a Kinect to a robotic car and sent it through an obstacle course.
You need two things to pull of something like that:
- free time
PhD programs have a tendency to have these properties. Talented people with enough spare bandwidth to try new things (although I have a feeling phd students are becoming too busy lately…). As you noticed from the quote, it was a team of students that did the work. From my own personal, experience this happens all the time in phd programs. Indeed, there are great examples such as Google, Yahoo and Dropbox. But I think in general we in academia see this as happy side effect and don’t encourage or even look at it is a goal of our PhD programs.
Instead, I believe that we should actively encourage such projects. PhD programs could become talent incubators. We in the academy can encourage the generation of talented teams, for example, making group projects a key part of phd programs. Indeed, one could see a future where universities specifically advertise or promote project teams (groups of students) to business or investors as success-ready talent. Additionally, this would also be an interesting way of providing alternative careers to PhD students who want to do something outside activities.
 Clearly *people development* is the one of the key services that universities provide. In general, i think universities are good at people development (although we could always be better) However, as the demand for high education increases and the pressure on universities to be more cost effective, I think it’s pertinent to begin to think about where universities can have added value that other higher education delivery mechanisms can’t. This is what this post is about.