Q&A With Vice President for Strategic Research Initiatives Robert V. Duncan

Robert V. Duncan discusses the importance of innovation and entrepreneurship and its place on campus and in the classroom.

duncan in front of SUB

Eureka: Entrepreneurship has always been a part of Texas Tech, but it seems like it's been growing ever larger each year. What's going on and why?

Duncan: Texas Tech has always been a remarkably creative and ingenious university, and I think what you're seeing is an expansion here and across the United States of entrepreneurialism, including programs to get students involved in taking charge of their future and thinking of how they can really commercialize and convert what they do into opportunities, not only for themselves, but also for their customers and people around them. So I would say in both commercial entrepreneurialism as well as social entrepreneurialism, we're seeing just a remarkable growth, and I think that's hugely positive. It's interesting. As an educator, I always found if we teach more entrepreneurially, if we teach not the traditional way, but convey the same material that shows the relevance of how students can advance careers and their lives with that information, students really learn the material. They understand the context of why they're learning the material, so they work a lot harder to make sure they really understand it well. So in teaching, certainly in research, and in our efforts in tech transfer and commercialization, this is a very exciting time.

Eureka: Let's talk a little bit about the difference between traditional teaching and entrepreneurial teaching. How are they different and what are the benefits?

Duncan: For example, I'm a physics professor. I taught extensively and took a lot of pride in my student successes. For example, if you're going to talk about "resolving force vectors," you can go to a block sliding down an inclined plane or you can talk about an aircraft in a turn. And, certainly the aircraft in a turn leads students to understand how their knowledge can be applied to something much more commercially relevant than a block down an inclined plane. You're teaching the same material, but you're teaching it in a much more entrepreneurial way, you're teaching it in a way in which the students get much more engaged.

Eureka: Tell me a little bit about what is driving this interest in seeding the new entrepreneurial ideas at not only Texas Tech, but also at other universities across the country.

Duncan: I think part of it was the realization that our economy was starting to flatten. In fact, in certain ways, The U.S. saw during the last decade some declines in our markets, or at least in some cases an increase in market share with some countries, so we're no longer the only kid on the block. I think what happened is people started to realize a very universal truth that the key to our success in our economy is not just doing what we knew how to do 30 years ago a little bit better. Certainly there will be some ongoing demand for skills we knew 30 years ago, but that will be a stable demand. If you flood the number of people working in those areas, suddenly supply goes up, demand stays same and market price falls for the wages. So you can't just look at traditional jobs and say "which ones have the higher wages," and then educate a lot of people to do that sort of thing. No. Our economy in the U.S. and the economies of the great nations of the world are based upon the next big thing. The next innovation. The next discovery. Being able to make the innovation go viral and become something everyone wants. The key realization is that our role as a major research university is to discover and develop that next big thing. It's not to say anything bad about people who go into more traditional careers. They can have an excellent life doing that. But our primary emphasis here through our entrepreneurial program is to develop that next big thing. That's where you get your non-linear growth. That's where you get great opportunity.

Eureka: So how does enhancing entrepreneurship on campus improve the experience of the students and faculty on campus as well as open up new avenues with the community?

Duncan: I think we enjoy an excellent town/gown relationship here in Lubbock. I think that's one of the great strengths not only of Texas Tech, but also of Lubbock as well. I think that is true for a number of reasons. Having a close arrangement where students can get experiential learning early in their academic careers as part of their undergraduate or graduate career is a real advantage. We have excellent arrangements with businesses and entities in Lubbock to allow students to get that experiential learning in their professions. Then, in terms of research itself, as we start to create these next big things – these innovative companies, these opportunities – we've seen that wealthy people here in Northwest Texas want to invest in them. To see our community leaders and high-wealth individuals here in West Texas ready to invest their own money in these promising new technologies, some of which are coming from the university, some from other highly innovative people in the community, I think that's another positive step. I think we're really realizing one of the most exciting times through this involvement with community and our entrepreneurial and innovative missions.

Eureka: We recently got an Innovation and Economic Prosperity designation from the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU). Can you talk a bit about how that designation relates to the entrepreneurial spirit here?

Duncan: One of the first things the president charged me to do when I joined Texas Tech at the end of 2013 was to pull together what we do in this area. We do so much that's really innovative really developing the economic prosperity of the region, but we've never taken the time to put it together into a coherently communicated fashion. And people here were really impressive. So many people pulled together to accomplish that. Certainly a number of people on our staff here pulled together to make that happen, but we found rapid inclusion from LEDA, the regional economic development authority, as well as great participation from the chamber of commerce. All of that was a fascinating process. It worked so well that in 2014, we were one of only 14 universities designated by APLU as an Innovation and Economic Prosperity University out of about 50 public universities that applied. That was huge. The other 13 were typically much larger in their research programs and their national and international reach. So it shows through this program that we're really coming into the Tier One status we're aspiring. That status really set the stage by recognizing how strong this place was as a starting point and gave us the incentive to build upon that.

Eureka: How do you see entrepreneurship shaping Texas Tech both in the near and distant future?

Duncan: Before the entrepreneur can develop a great commercial or social opportunity, there has to be that lightbulb moment. Sometimes that's seeing something millions of people have seen and thinking something no one else has thought and then seeing how you can steer that into creating societal value. That process, I think, is really something our students strongly embrace. We had a huge number of students interested in entrepreneurialism at Texas Tech. We did a survey in conjunction with student body election about a year and a half ago where 5,000 out of 6,000 students voting were involved in inventing or entrepreneurship or expressed an interest in becoming involved while they were here at Texas Tech. Those survey results speak volumes about how enthusiastic and engaged the student body is. I think many of our faculty are very innovative and entrepreneurial. We want them to be serial innovators. We want them to prep students to be next entrepreneurs that take these things into marketplace. We want our faculty to secure patents. The other aspect of this is our faculty has always been good at mentoring students to move into grad study and discovery of new knowledge. That's critically important. By providing this value-added opportunity of entrepreneurship into a four-year or graduate education for our students, they create a huge value when they move into society far, far greater than the cost of their tuition. That's a huge economic plus.