University of Southern California

Kathleen Allen
The Value of Cross-Disciplinary Collaboration
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At USC we talk a lot about the importance of cross-disciplinary collaboration, even as the constraints operating on institutions of higher education often work against collaboration success. It has been my experience, however, that the value of cross-campus collaboration is great enough to warrant the effort to make it happen.

One area in which collaboration can pay high dividends is in the area of commercialization of university research, particularly as it relates to technology. In 1997, with all the press surrounding the Internet bubble and massive amounts of money being thrown at startups, even the most dedicated researchers couldn’t help but be curious about whether their technologies held that kind of promise and they began asking for help. It is against this backdrop that I decided to dedicate my research and teaching to the business of commercializing technological innovations developed by university scientists.

As an entrepreneur, I found the topic of commercialization of technology-based products both fascinating and intellectually rewarding. My 14 years of experience at USC have enabled me to hang around with scientists at USC hospitals and engineers on our main campus and the annex buildings in Marina del Ray and make a difference by helping them translate their intellectual capital into marketable products.

My academic degrees are in business, foreign languages, and music. Hence, one might wonder how someone like me, without a technology based academic degree, might help scientists commercialize their technological innovations. However, I discovered that the skills developed through my academic experiences were perfectly suited to address technology commercialization issues.

My experience in business and entrepreneurship enabled me bring to the table a set of unique skills and a market perspective that scientists, physicians, and engineers didn’t have. It was also enlightening to learn that these renowned scientists viewed my skill set in business and entrepreneurship as intellectually challenging for them; ways of problem solving that were second nature to me were alien to them.

My experience in foreign languages was also helpful. Because I was clearly out of my comfort zone in talking to molecular biologists and retinal surgeons, I had to ask a lot of questions, so as to translate what they knew into ideas that could be meaningful to me. Knowing how to ask great questions is often far more important than knowing all the answers. This ability to "translate" allowed me to learn a new language—that of the scientist. As well, I helped these scientists learn the language of business and entrepreneurship. We all benefitted from challenging ourselves intellectually, stepping outside of our comfort zones, and developing new ways of thinking and communicating.

The biggest insight I have drawn from 14 years of working across disciplines is that left-brained thinking (logic and symmetry, formulas and analysis) so common in the sciences, engineering, and even business is necessary for the creation of new technology; but, the more essential element for both invention and commercialization involves the conceptual, big picture thinking associated with the right hemisphere of the brain. Let me explain with an example from music. Technical prowess is important for a musician to be able to deliver on the promise of the composer; but, technical prowess alone produces an outcome that is technically correct but mechanical and lacking in emotion. A great musician knows how to subordinate technical prowess to insight, symphony, empathy, and passion so that the listener is pulled into the experience of the music and is unaware of the "technology" behind the musical expression. In the same way, a great technology creates value for customers that goes far beyond its feature set. The customer is drawn to the technology because it solves a real problem the customer is experiencing or, in some cases, a problem he didn’t know he had. My years of experience in entrepreneurship and music have given me the ability to conceptualize, to see the big picture, and to tell a compelling and meaningful story about a particular research application or the business case for a new venture. Over the years, I have helped dozens of researchers experience and acquire that ability.

So valuable is cross-disciplinary collaboration that I’ve brought it into the classroom at Marshall. My courses in entrepreneurship and technology commercialization bring together business, science, and engineering students to create diverse perspectives that produce new insights and a level of creative and critical thinking I have not seen in more discipline-focused classes. To be sure, students use their analytical skills to find applications and markets for new technologies, but the more important skills they take away from the courses are right-brained skills. They learn to move out of their comfort zones and work with people who know things they don’t and to look at the world quite differently. They connect ideas and concepts that aren’t normally connected to experience the thrill of discovery and invention. Perhaps most importantly, like me back in 1997 when I became an explorer of USC research, they too are amazed at all the interesting, groundbreaking research that is being conducted at USC. And they now see how they can take their business expertise into new areas they had never considered and collaborate in fields they never thought possible.

And me? I have had the privilege to work with some of the most renowned people in their fields. Over the years, with a lot of study and work alongside many good people at USC, I have managed to acquire a significant store of knowledge in such diverse areas as aerospace, medical devices and therapeutics, biotech, energy, and the Internet, and I’m serving on several important research efforts in science and engineering. I’ve also moved from Physics for Dummies to quantum mechanics and bioinformatics. There’s so much to learn.