Imagine the trees in your yard literally talking to your water sprinklers, saving money by tweeting your sprinkler about when to turn on and off.
Or imagine that your doctor gives you a coronary stent to improve blood flow to your heart, and the stent, when it is no longer needed, tells itself to dissolve, saving you from invasive procedures now necessary to remove it.
Now, imagine that your local university has seen its state support evaporate like lawn water on a summer-of-2012 day. But that university has researchers working on these ideas, and others. And some of those ideas might create jobs in Wichita, bringing money to the university and to the community.
John Bardo said the most exciting discovery he has made as president of Wichita State University is the quality of research and innovation. He already knew the value to aviation of WSU’s National Institute for Aviation Research, but he saw much more.
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“I’ve toured a number of areas around the campus, and some of the research and work that I’m hearing about just blew me away,” he said. “We’ve always had a strong engineering department, and NIAR, but much of what I’ve heard about is work that is way beyond aviation.
“The question then is how can we enhance and support this.”
Some innovations being studied on the campus would have been considered fantasy not long ago, said Ravi Pendse, WSU’s chief information officer and a Cisco fellow. A tree tweeting to a sprinkler might seem odd and not much of a cost-saver at first glance at one lawn, he said.
“But think about how we’ve had this drought, where all our lawns this summer just burned up,” he said.
Watering costs money. With new devices being researched at WSU, he said, your tree could tell your sprinkler the best and most cost-saving time to turn on (at night, when water doesn’t evaporate like it does in sunlight). And your tree could tell your sprinkler to shut off when the tree gets enough water.
This not only saves you a chore, but saves a natural resource and saves you a little money. And if you happen to be an urban planner worried about getting water to people, you realize that tweeting trees save a lot of money, collectively.
Multiply the savings of water on your lawn, times all the other people in town with tweeting trees. Multiply that with all the other lawns in the country – you’re talking millions and billions.
“And the world is finite,” Pendse said. “Sustainability is one of the really important words in the future we know our resources in this world are limited.”
Pendse said many other people at WSU are working on innovations that might soon be harnessed to better the world and create jobs. And Bardo, his new boss, says he’s studied how to think about harnessing all these energies for WSU. His area of expertise, before he started running universities, was as a sociologist who researched globalization, technology and the relationships between higher education and the economy.
Bardo knows our entrepreneurial history.
“We have a good, strong history with the development of entrepreneurship and basic research,” Bardo said.
He wants to figure out, collaborating with his researchers and Wichita’s business community, how the university could better support and harness ideas created both on the campus and in local industry, with WSU generating more income from grants, business spin-outs, partnerships and other collaborations.
“It would allow us to be entrepreneurs and still not get away from our basic mission,” Bardo said.
Increasingly, Bardo said, universities have turned to public-private partnerships, grants and various forms of commercialization, not only to generate income but to continue providing a liberal arts education. He gained experience supervising ideas like these in his previous job as chancellor of Western Carolina University.
What he’s seen here so far is enticing, and goes beyond what he thought he knew about WSU coming in. There are people doing promising studies on the medical uses of zinc, people researching how to better harness wind power, and more.
What Bardo is proposing is to create “a great new ecosystem to support entrepreneurship and innovation here and beyond,” Pendse said.
“So if you have an idea as an entrepreneur, we look at it. And from your idea develop a product, test it, analyze it. And you and we work with WSU’s entrepreneurship center to figure out how to commercialize it, market it,” Pendse said.
“Perhaps we can help you find seed money, connections with investors in town. Your business gets launched, and if you promise to stay in Wichita, WSU for what it did for you takes a small percentage of what you earn. And if you leave Wichita, we take maybe a bigger percentage.
“In other words, we are trying to encourage you to stay here and grow jobs.”
And all the while this is going on, he said, students are part of the equation, helping, researching, learning — and enrollment grows, another of Bardo’s goals.
“We could look to create the next Google right out of here,” Pendse said. “We have a lot incredibly talented people.”