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Don't forget the C in STEM

Posted by Chad O'Connor  August 7, 2013 11:00 AM

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Invention of steam technology: 1st Century AD, Hero of Alexandria, Egypt.

Invention of first commercially successful steam engine: 18th Century, Thomas Newcomen, England.

Study STEM: Then What?
The omnipresent catchword in reshaping the American educational infrastructure and economic future is STEM education: coursework in science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers. Policymakers, business leaders, elected officials, and of course parents all know how important STEM education is for the economy of the future. There is considerable investment in STEM education at all grade levels, and it’s a catchword that has a connotation of future growth for our community. President Obama often mentions STEM at White House Science Fairs; yet there’s no easy answer how courses in calculus translate into new jobs.

Global Interest in the STEM Economy
The Greater Boston area is one of the most vibrant innovation clusters in the world, especially in the sectors of life sciences, computer science, and energy. Kendall Square in particular is known as the most innovative square mile in the world. And there is global interest to collaborate and invest into areas such as Kendall Square, due to the remarkable energy here. Consulates, Foreign Chambers of Commerce, Economic Development Programmes from Europe to the Middle East to Asia send delegations, diplomats and leading business tycoons to find the secret sauce of the Cambridge economic boom. You can meet them on a weekly basis at the Venture Cafe, MassChallenge, and the Harvard Kennedy School, just to name a few of the highly trafficked innovation hotspots. STEM is the focus of government and corporate investment worldwide.

Why Culture Matters
The elephant in the room is that the sociological habits formed by business innovators and scientists are often quite at odds. In order to be a respected scientist in your field you must develop focus, empirical rigor and patience to run experiments, code and build upon your cumulative knowledge in a field of specialization. Long nights in the lab, faraway conferences meeting with other specialists and many papers published in the top academic journals are de rigueur.

Governments and corporations may invest billions into R&D, yet the creative spark that lights the fire of innovation cannot start through command and control administration. Many disruptive business leaders in the world were never any good at keeping quiet in the classroom. They drop out of college, they break the rules, and they step on toes. They don’t think like the majority; they find an unconventional opportunity and an underserved market and strike while the iron is hot. So to commercialize a new medical device, computer algorithm, or other new scientific innovation often requires a world-class scientist to team up with a street-smart business mind to bring the theory to market. Professor Noam Wasserman at Harvard Business School has noted that in startup companies, interpersonal issues lead to founder’s dilemmas in approximately 65% of cases. To create and maintain a successful business partnership of this type is more difficult than rocket science.

The International STEM Graduate
And the cultural complexities to scientific innovation in the US is further complicated by the fact that many founders have recently immigrated to the country. Vivek Wadhwa has noted in his research that immigrant founders of tech ventures have employed in excess of 500,000 workers and generated over $60 billion in sales in the US. Unless strong action is taken, this trend in American business culture will decline. The proportion of immigrant-founded companies is dropping, and in Silicon Valley in particular from 52 to 43 percent. Many immigrant entrepreneurs view the US immigration system to be so unfriendly to their future business interests that the most revolutionary startup community in our country will be out of US jurisdiction and into international waters: The Blueseed Project.

It’s difficult to find a suitable co-founder if you want to start a new venture, and it’s doubly difficult if you’ve been cloistered in a lab for five years doing your PhD, and you haven’t had the time to build up a trusted social network of business professionals. To be fair, there are a wide range of organizations designed to assist scientific founders, and technology transfer offices in particular serving innovative scientists; yet the demand for business mentorship and patent due diligence far outstrips organizational capacity. And we’re not even factoring in the incredibly difficult situation many highly educated immigrants are in with respect to our immigration system, given that after they receive their doctorate in the US, they may not even be able to stay in the country.

The Way Forward
Moving forward, as our innovation infrastructure grows to meet the needs of STEM graduates, we’ll need to offer new types of coaching, mentoring, and visionary leadership to help graduates turn theory into practice. It is insufficient to hope that education in and of itself will change the face of the American economy. The cultural divide between professions and to a great degree across cultural boundaries must be crossed in new ways in order to catalyze scientific innovation and bring the products of the future to the global market.

John Henry Silva is a serial entrepreneur based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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