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Originally published Friday, March 7, 2014 at 5:14 PM

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How the U.S. can lead on technological innovation

Organized innovation is the key to bringing the U.S. ecosystem together of universities, businesses and government, according to guest columnists Steven C. Currall and Ed Frauenheim.

Special to The Times

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Our country’s technological and economic leadership is at risk as U.S. innovation capabilities have stagnated while those of other nations have advanced.

Since 2008, the number of foreign-origin patents that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has granted annually has surpassed the number of domestic-origin patents. And between 1999 and 2009, the U.S. share of global research and development spending dropped, while the share of Asia as a whole rose and exceeded the U.S. share in 2009.

There is a way forward when it comes to innovation that would appeal to Americans of different political stripes. The solution taps the power of both the private and public sectors to generate groundbreaking inventions — the kinds of new technologies that create good jobs and improve life for everyone.

We call it “organized innovation.” It is a blueprint for better coordinating the key players in the U.S. innovation ecosystem: universities, businesses and government.

Over the past few decades, this ecosystem has devolved into a disorganized, less-than-optimal approach to technology commercialization.

An innovation gap began to emerge in the 1970s and 1980s as big U.S. companies retreated from basic research and focused on incremental product development. Research fell to the universities. But academic research often remains walled off within particular disciplines, conducted in a vacuum that ignores societal challenges. Too often it does not make the leap beyond the lab to the real world.

Our polarized political climate hasn’t helped. While some politicians have called for beefing up our innovation system, priorities have differed. President Obama has pressed for more federal research and development spending. Republicans want to ensure that National Science Foundation monies are spent in the “national interest.” The bottom line: no widespread agreement about how to proceed has surfaced.

We believe the organized innovation framework can break this stalemate. It has three main pillars: channeled curiosity, boundary-breaking collaboration and orchestrated commercialization.

Channeled curiosity steers researchers’ fundamental inquiries toward real-world problems. Boundary-breaking collaboration tears down walls between academic disciplines and between universities and the private sector to better generate novel, high-impact technologies. Orchestrated commercialization coordinates the various players involved in technology commercialization — including scholars, university administrators, venture capitalists and corporations—to translate research insights into real-world benefits.

The organized innovation framework already has proven effective in closing the innovation gap. It is inspired by our nearly decade-long study of a highly successful but little-known federal initiative, the National Science Foundation’s Engineering Research Centers. The initiative funded the Engineering Research Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering at the University of Washington.

These university-based centers require researchers to link basic science to social and market dilemmas, demand interdisciplinary and industry-academic collaboration and encourage the creation of proofs-of-concept to demonstrate that a lab-based technology has commercial potential.

From 1985 to 2009, about $1 billion in federal funding was invested in the centers. They have returned more than 10 times that amount in a wide variety of technology innovations. America needs to foster more innovation along these lines. Federal research funding should be based largely on the principles of organized innovation. Steering more public funds to solve real-world problems will improve our lives and our return on investment.

What’s more, the organized innovation principles are fundamentally bipartisan. “Organized” highlights government’s ability to tackle big problems. “Innovation” speaks to the critical role entrepreneurs and businesses play in a vibrant economy.

“Organized” and “innovation” are words rarely heard together. But the country can find common ground in this proven approach to developing and commercializing technology. Let’s get our innovation act together for a more prosperous, hopeful future.

Steven C. Currall is dean of the University of California Davis Graduate School of Management. Ed Frauenheim is a freelance writer. They are co-authors of the book “Organized Innovation.”

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