Toward a More Perfect Union

Summer 2014


Throughout our history, Johns Hopkins University has excelled at creating knowledge and educating scholars. As faculty, we probe the unknown with our students, churn out exciting papers, and travel the world presenting novel findings. Our preeminence in these activities, often regarded as the gold standards of productivity and success in academia, is widely acknowledged. However, if the Whiting School is to grow as an international leader in the world of engineering, we must do more.

In addition to creating knowledge we must play an active role in turning our discoveries into products that benefit society. Whether through licensing technologies, starting companies, or sharing expertise with corporate and government entities, we must strive to maximize the impact our discoveries and our ideas have on the world around us. We need to regain that union of science and practice, the same union that led Abel Wolman to purify Baltimore’s water system and Alexander Graham Christie to improve power generation as the state’s first professional engineer. In essence, we need to shift our underlying culture to nurture and grow a supportive and entrepreneurial spirit—one that values the creation and commercialization of technology, along with our traditional roles of research and teaching.

To be clear, a number of Whiting School faculty members are demonstrating interest and capabilities in commercializing their groundbreaking technologies. They’re rolling up their sleeves and pushing prototypes out the door. Some are licensing their technologies to large corporations, while others are starting their own companies and playing an active role in management. But as a school, we have untapped potential in this area. Providing engineering faculty with more support and placing value on technology commercialization in the faculty promotion process will help us unleash that potential.

I think back to my own experience co-founding a company in 2002. With no guidance or support on campus, I took a three-year leave of absence to act as CEO, raise venture financing, and grow the company to 45 employees. Though I learned business skills on the fly, I am confident that some preparation and support from the school would have been invaluable. Faculty members need assistance and the support of a broad ecosystem when pursuing technology commercialization, research, and teaching simultaneously.

Beyond maximizing the impact of our discoveries and ideas, we must also re-evaluate how we prepare our students for this new entrepreneurial world. Currently, we tend to focus on producing scholars and feel most accomplished when one of our PhD students goes on to a tenure-track faculty position. But the data tells us that most of our students, both undergraduate and graduate, do not become academics. In fact, most do not stay in technical roles for their full careers. Thus, there is a growing awareness that we need to provide students with more than engineering skills and knowledge. We must equip them to be leaders, capable of turning their ideas into commercial products.

Fortunately, the Whiting School is now creating a budding ecosystem with educational opportunities for students and translational tools for faculty. Courses and activities in our Center for Leadership Education prepare students to be leaders and entrepreneurs, and the combination of a proactive technology transfer office and the creation of FastForward, a new technology commercialization system and incubator, is accelerating the translational activities of faculty, postdocs, and students.

Ultimately, an engineering school that celebrates and supports a broad educational program, the creation of new knowledge for the world, and the translation of technologies into the world, will be one that thrives in the 21st century.

Tim Weihs is a Whiting School professor of Materials Science and Engineering and director of the Center for Leadership Education.