Embedding an entrepreneurial culture at Northwestern

An interview with Alicia Löffler, Northwestern University

Academic research and economic development | Volume 4, Issue 1 – 2014

A university is shaped by and helps to shape its environs. In some regions, the relationship between academia and enterprise may be well entrenched, such as in the high-tech or biotech clusters of Silicon Valley or San Diego. In Chicago, a city of big industry, growing a startup culture takes deliberate cultivation. Alicia Löffler describes some of the efforts that have put Northwestern University and Chicago on the right trajectory.

Q. Tell me about Northwestern’s Innovation and New Ventures Office.

In 2010 the university decided to change the way it moves innovations to the market, starting with what was essentially a technology transfer office focused on transactions — “I need a patent; I need a license.” As part of that change, I came from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management to lead the new organization and to institute a more holistic approach, incorporating translational activities: discovering research with potential and moving innovations toward commercialization. INVO reports not only to Northwestern’s Vice President of Research. INVO is also overseen by the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Committee of the Board of Trustees. This committee ensures Northwestern remains at the cutting edge of innovation and entrepreneurship, and takes a very broad view of innovation from research to education to processes.

Q. How does INVO “scout for research” with commercialization potential?

We have a number of mechanisms, including the Entrepreneur in Residence. This is someone with industry or venture capital experience whom we bring in to work with our students and faculty. It’s a one-year position, as we want this person to be looking at us from a fresh perspective and eager to uncover opportunities. On the other end of the spectrum, we use our own students through the Innovation to Commercialization Fellowship. Over the summer, students from the business, engineering, medical and law schools act as our eyes and ears in the labs across campus, scouting technology.

Northwestern also brings groups together. In the NUvention classes, students from various schools form teams and look for startup opportunities. Two of those startups in the energy space went on to win national awards and received significant funding. In the Commercialization Clinics, faculty have the opportunity to learn from outsiders such as an entrepreneur or someone who has experience with intellectual property.

My five-year goal is to put INVO out of business. I would like these interactions to become autocatalytic so INVO is not necessarily the origin. Most people learn from role models so we are focused on creating those role models. We want to create talent that changes the world, starting with a positive impact on the local community. We think that talent impacts growth more than funding and space.

Q. Can Northwestern compete in terms of attracting world-class talent?

One of the first things I did when I joined INVO was to begin a deeper collaboration with the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois. Individually we don’t have a critical mass like Stanford or MIT, but when we put the three organizations together, we have a better chance of attracting talent to the region that might not come otherwise. We put together a program called the Chicago Innovation Mentors, which attracts top entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. Together we attract more than 100 mentors to a monthly meeting where our universities each present our companies and receive advice and ongoing mentorship from these highly qualified friends of the universities who have experience in entrepreneurship or product development.

Then there are our joint incubators. MATTER is the name of a new life-science hub housed at the Merchandise Mart. The region’s universities, life-science companies, investors and entrepreneurs all took part in shaping and contributing to this nexus for conceiving and growing life-science companies. (1) MATTER was modeled after 1871, the successful co-working center for digital startups with affordable workspace and a host of supporting resources. These spaces, the supporting services and the involvement of a wide range of stakeholders help ensure that the companies we create remain in Chicago and Illinois.

Northwestern also has an advantage in the incredible diversity, depth and quality of our academic schools, including those in engineering, business, medicine, law and journalism. We bring these student scholars together in programs such as NUvention. This has bred cross-collaboration, for example, a much lauded startup, Narrative Science, is at the cross-section of journalism and engineering.

Q. Does government play a role?

The state government is extremely supportive, though somewhat hampered by limited resources. The federal government has stepped in with funding to assist universities in prototyping, proof of concept and validation. In early 2000 it was much easier to license early-stage technologies to big companies and find funding for startups; however, with the economic downturn, this funding dried up. The federal government is also supporting regional initiatives such as UI LABS, a Chicago-based consortium of researchers that includes Northwestern faculty. In February of this year, the federal government announced a $70 million grant to UI LABS to help found the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute and position Chicago as a national hub for digital manufacturing.

Q. How do you measure the success of INVO’s efforts?

We disclose metrics every year to the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM), including research funding and number of patents, startups, licenses, inventions, etc. You also have to look closely at the story the metrics are telling. Anyone can start up a company; the real test may be to see how much funding the company acquires to move the product forward or whether the company has grown in three to five years.

And we have seen success. Northwestern is the leading Illinois university in driving new business starts (2), we are the number one nonprofit institution in Chicago in number of patents and sixth overall (after Motorola, Abbott, Baxter, etc.), and first in the nation in licensing revenue. (3) Of course, we won the lottery with Lyrica, a drug developed at Northwestern that is marketed by Pfizer. However, when the patent runs out, so does the money, which makes it critical to have a self-sustaining culture that keeps the pipeline full.


1. Pletz, John. “The formation of Matter, Chicago’s new health-tech incubator,” ChicagoBusiness.com. February 11, 2014. http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20140211/BLOGS11/140219941/the-formation-of-matter-chicagos-new-health-tech-incubator
2. Illinois Science & Technology Coalition. “The role of universities in driving new business starts,” Illinois Innovation Network, February 1, 2014. http://www.illinoisinnovation.com/innovation-index/university-startups/
3. Association of University Technology Managers. “Licensing Activity Survey Annual Report,” January 9, 2014. 

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