Larry Says: Let’s Get Rich

Cavorting Beasties

How is former Chinese leader and Communist Party chief Deng Xiaoping like University President Lawrence H. Summers? It’s not their occasional strongman tactics or sprawling empires that join these two men. Rather, it’s that they both want to get rich, and in a capitalist way.

China’s transition to capitalism was just confirmed by this month’s 16th Communist Party Congress in Beijing, which included Chinese leader Jiang Zemin’s amusing sophistry on the subject of letting capitalists join the Party. But Harvard is just beginning to break with academic orthodoxy, which has a view toward capitalism similar to Marxist orthodoxy. The University has started to embrace making money off of academic research.

Indeed, Harvard had a capitalist conference of its own two weeks ago, held in the Science Center, our very own Great Hall of the People. In the beginning of a re-education campaign worthy of Deng, the University put on a “Start-Up Workshop” to educate Harvard scientists in the art of making companies that make money for the University. Deng’s greatest contribution to Chinese Communism was the directive that “to get rich is glorious.” Now Summers is bringing a new entrepreneurial spirit to a Harvard that has long been resistant to breaking academic orthodoxy against encouraging profitable research.

In his opening remarks to the hundreds of young and well-dressed scientists and others who gathered for the series of presentations and panel discussions, Provost Steven E. Hyman sensed the reluctance of some academics to bringing capitalism any closer to the campus. “It’s important as a university to discuss ethics,” Hyman said in his short speech. However, he said the University had rules about handing discoveries made at Harvard over to private companies. “Within the constraints of those guidelines, President Summers and I think it’s very important to move discoveries from the laboratory benchtop to a domain where they can be beneficial to humanity,” Hyman said. Closer relations with industry also have the happy byproduct of generating money, sometimes a lot of money, for the University. (Harvard made almost $25 million in 2001 in royalties from licenses.) But the provost did not say this. He was choosing his words carefully, because he knows that there are still good arguments against a close relationship between the academy and industry.

And the audience did not have to wait long to hear them. In a panel discussion that included, among others, a Harvard Medical School professor and a venture capitalist, the participants spoke of the difficulty of straddling the academic and corporate worlds. Usually, being heavily involved with a start-up company means leaving academia. Even academics who hand off their work to corporations without getting involved in running a company face ethical issues. For example, academics may choose to withhold certain discoveries from their academic competitors if they need to get a patent first. The potential for a serious conflict of interest always lurks. In a discussion about the issues involved in bringing discoveries from the lab to market, Lehman Professor of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics John J. Mekalanos jokingly called the venture capitalist sitting next to him a “vulture capitalist,” but that comment summed up the tense relationship that sometimes exists between professors and money-people.


Harvard’s own culture is partly to blame. Compared to MIT, which is often cast as enthusiastically embracing an entrepreneurial view of science, Harvard has a reputation of being “above” turning research into profit. (Harvard generally gets only a portion of the profit from technologies it licenses to companies.) At the workshop, Hyman said he and Summers (who was not present) wanted to fight the perception that “Harvard is grudging about all of this” compared to other universities and has moved slowly to make it possible.

But in “Harvard time,” the transition to capitalism is actually moving along quite rapidly. The idea of Harvard cooperating with industry is only about 20 years old. It dates back to a meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences on Oct. 21, 1980. At that meeting exactly 22 years and one month from today, then-President Derek C. Bok commented that technology transfer could be “a possible way of increasing funds available to the University—provided we can do so in a manner consistent with our academic purposes and goals.” Thus, the original idea behind technology transfer was to increase revenues.

Now, the provost is stressing the good to society that could come from developing and marketing Harvard technologies. The question is, what has changed? Well, Larry has. Summers has made it clear that he foresees Boston as part of a “Silicon Valley” for biotechnology. Harvard has a critical role to play in fostering this regional renaissance. In his first year in office, Summers has stumped tirelessly for increased attention to research in the biological sciences. He has promised that he would announce a substantial initiative in this area in a “year or two.” That was last spring. By now, you can bet the venture capitalists are gliding overhead in lazy circles, waiting to stick their heads into the fecund bowels of Harvard science. Deng would be proud.

Jonathan H. Esensten ’04 is a biochemical sciences concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.