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Innovation engine

GMU strives to jump-start high-reward ideas, feed tech pipeline

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Eric Lofgren is studying federal acquisition of weapons systems.
Photo by Stephen Gosling

When Eric Lofgren finishes his work as an Emergent Ventures fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, he hopes to provide a “socially useful” analysis of U.S. weapon systems acquisition.

Emergent Ventures Fellow Shruti Rajagopalan plans to help develop better property rights laws in India.

Both are members of a new incubator fellowship and grant program launched with a $1 million grant from the Thiel Foundation, the private foundation created and funded by billionaire PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.

The program’s stated goal is to allow entrepreneurs “to jump-start high-risk, high-reward ideas that advance prosperity, opportunity and well-being. The fellowship provides participants with the short-term resources and support to quickly develop and test their ideas.”

Emergent Ventures is a step toward making “moonshots a reality,” Tyler Cowen, faculty director of the Mercatus Center, said when the program was announced in July 2018. “By finding and taking chances on risk-taking, talented people with bold ideas, I believe we can reinvent the capacity for an intellectually oriented philanthropy to improve the world.”

Rajagopalan, who received her Ph.D. in economics from George Mason in 2013, says the fellowship allows her to pursue “ideas off the usual path. My big goals are for a more free, prosperous India.” She’s currently studying government use of eminent domain to seize private property for public use. “There’s a tension that has existed. How can we design a system that will actually help govern people better,” she asks, balancing public interest and individual rights?

Lofgren, who worked as a consultant at the Pentagon, studied dissenting voices on weapon systems procurement from the mid-20th century. Finding “a gaping hole in the literature,” he’s at work on a book, a podcast and a blog on the subject and plans to return to the defense industry when his fellowship is finished. “I think I have a socially useful book here about the budget process. Usually we talk about contracting reform, but we’re not really addressing the crux of the problem: the flow of funds [and] how do you justify those funds.”

Those are just two examples of the scholarship that the program cultivates. At a recent meeting of fellows, Lofgren says he found “there are lots of interesting people doing different things. Some are doing neuroscience, chemistry, social activity, small satellite development. It’s a heterogenous group. There are a lot of under-21-year-olds.”

Emergent Ventures builds on more than 35 years of student fellowships awarded by the Mercatus Center to graduate students at Mason and other universities throughout the world. The not-for-profit research organization does not receive any financial support from the university or state.

‘Thinkers, doers and problem-solvers’
The Emergent Ventures program’s goals support Mason’s overarching strategic goal of meeting “the demands of the commonwealth, the region and the world for dynamic, creative, collaborative thinkers, doers and problem-solvers.” Mason, the largest public university in Virginia, states that it is committed to contributing “to the economic and civic vitality of the region by driving entrepreneurship and innovation and by creating learning partnerships with private and public organizations.”

One prominent partnership is with Inc., which announced plans last November to locate its second headquarters in Northern Virginia. Mason now projects it will enroll more than 10,000 undergraduates and 5,000 graduate students in computing-related degree programs by 2024. The university has launched a new School of Computing to meet the growing demand.

Mason pledged to invest more than $250 million over the next five years to grow programs, hire faculty and expand its Arlington campus. That includes the creation of the multidisciplinary Institute for Digital InnovAtion (IDIA), a university think tank and incubator for the digital economy. IDIA’s new, 400,000-square-foot building will house graduate programs and research as well as entrepreneurs, technologists and business leaders.

Bringing together students, faculty, researchers, entrepreneurs, technologists and business leaders creates conditions conducive to “innovation ferment,” says Deborah Crawford, Mason’s vice president for research, innovation and economic impact.

“If you have a certain density of talent, it will attract more companies who are tapping into that talent. Then you’ll be able to create new companies,” Crawford says. “My job is to enable and support that type of ecosystem, to provide the wraparound support that new businesses need to succeed.”

“An ecosystem requires many species to make it healthy,” she adds, and Mason is committed to working with the other universities in Northern Virginia. “We contribute different assets and benefit from each other. We have natural day-to-day interaction and work closely together.”

All this research, innovation and cooperation is happening in the context of the global economy, Crawford notes. Mason has established a branch campus in Songdo, South Korea, and a “global [perspective] is highly integrated into everything we do. We think about preparing our graduates to work in multinational companies. They need to be culturally sensitive about how tech is used around the world.”

George Mason has been in the process of searching for a new president, with former Virginia Secretary of Education Anne Holton acting as interim president. “The presidential transition has not changed our priorities at all. Our highest priority is tech talent, tech talent, tech talent,” Crawford says. “We need to provide successful graduates for the tech talent pipeline. This is about graduating more students and attracting talent to the region.”

Diverse stakeholders
Mason’s commitment to tech talent is not limited to faculty and traditional university students but embraces entrepreneurs of all types, adult learners and even youngsters, according to Crawford.

The Mason Enterprise Center offers programs, services and resources for entrepreneurs of all experience levels — aspiring, start-up and established. The center is particularly focused on small-business services, she notes.

The university works with young students, preparing them to enter the talent pipeline. Its Early Identification Program focuses on middle school and high school students who would be the first in their families to go to college. They participate in weekend and summer programs designed to help them to have a more productive college experience. 

Mason has established a partnership program with Northern Virginia Community College called ADVANCE that lets community college students “declare as Mason students and get access at NOVA and at Mason.

They do the majority of their first two years at NOVA, and the credits transfer,” Crawford says. “It’s an important option for students who are worried about the cost of a four-year degree. It can almost cut the cost in half by taking courses at NOVA first.”

The university also has programs tailored to adults who want to complete their education or change career paths.

“Someone might have an associate degree and be interested in entering the tech workforce. We provide them with an academic pathway. We allow individuals who want to upskill in particular market sectors to improve their business positions,” she says. Mason offers a variety of approaches, such as online courses and certificate programs, “because people make their way differently.”

George Mason University has been growing “by leaps and bounds,” Crawford says. “Mason reflects the region overall — growing, multicultural, diverse, with respect for the great value diverse communities bring.”

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