Universities as green innovators
Stanford University has long held a tradition of innovation. The legendary tech startups, such as Yahoo and Google, that were founded by Stanford students in its hallowed halls is now the stuff of legend in SIlicon Valley. (In fact, Sun Microsystems got their original name as an acronym for Stanford University Network.) Billions of dollars have literally walked off campus, yet this atmosphere of innovation continues today.
Other universities share in this tradition. At MIT, for example, alumni have founded 25,800 companies which generate revenues of about $1.9 trillion a year.
While you could argue that if Stanford had an agreement that gave them even one-tenth of 1 percent of anything created by their students, they would have an endless endowment worth billions. But perhaps this would scare off the future tech billionaires from ever matriculating in the first place. Instead, what if a university could utilize their students as an in-house R&D (research and development) laboratory? Students would still be free to profit from their inventions, but the institution could benefit from the ideas in some way.
At a symposium for The Earth Institute at Columbia University, I met Sam Harrington, marketing director for Ecovative Design. It turns out that a similar innovation is currently happening at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in upstate New York. Instead of tech companies, they're developing a new wave of innovative materials. Ecovative was started by RPI students who developed an innovative foam material derived from mycelium (a.k.a. mushroom fungi) called EcoCradle. In its' current state, EcoCradle is a surprisingly affordable and effective alternative to oil-based Styrofoam. This "mushroom foam" could have thousands of potential uses.
Sam and I discussed the possibilities of eventually utilizing the foam as a natural, non-toxic and biodegradable alternative for building insulation. It could replace traditional, formaldehyde-based fiberglass. Imagine improving the indoor air and eliminating a known carcinogen from our buildings. Such bio-based materials will (eventually) radically improve the health and impact of our buildings. The challenge for Sam and small companies like his is finding real-world projects in which to test their creations.