Extending innovation is focus of UC Davis-Mars collaboration

Harold Schmitz
Harold Schmitz

Amid all the headline-grabbing talk about the value of public higher education, about taxpayer support for education or the lack of it, about what’s in it for us and why we should care, there’s a pie-in-the-sky word – innovation – that needs some grounding in the here and now.

I’m the chief scientist of Mars Inc. – a diverse global food company headquartered near Washington, D.C. Where my colleagues and I have established ourselves, however, is on the University of California’s Davis campus.

Why did Mars choose UC Davis above all other universities in the world? Because this public powerhouse is the best place to discover ways to improve the health of all three of our primary consumers: people, dogs and cats. It’s home to the world’s best agricultural school and ideally positioned to find ways to create sustainable supply chains for our key raw materials, including cacao, corn, peanuts, tomatoes and rice.

UC Davis’ expertise in management, economics, law, engineering and many other areas is vital for companies such as Mars to innovate successfully. And being connected to the larger University of California system with its vast array of faculty expertise and graduate talent is critical to innovation in industry. Being in Davis also places us next to the world’s leading innovation cluster in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, which faces the emerging markets of Asia.

I believe there is a crucial shift in the role of universities in modern society and that all of us, in the public and private spheres, should support it. The notion of universities as detached ivory towers where professors live to publish and students live for grades is as outdated as the rotary phone.

Universities and the higher education they deliver are essential for enabling discovery of new knowledge and translating this into needed innovation. These new goods and services can benefit not just industry but society as a whole by helping to solve the unprecedented grand challenges associated with climate change, health, food security and poverty. It is a slow and difficult transition because universities know how to reward research publications but are only slowly learning how to reward innovation. I believe UC Davis and the UC system are at the forefront of this curve.

This is why UC Davis and Mars have jointly established the Innovation Institute for Food and Health. The institute aims to establish a new type of university-industry relationship that catalyzes much needed innovation at the nexus of food, agricultural and health.

Success for this institute depends upon creating a novel ecosystem in which companies (including our competitors), universities, national laboratories, government research bodies, foundations and non-governmental organizations can collaborate. As we face a future with huge and urgent challenges, familiar, common partnerships will not be enough. We need to pursue uncommon collaborations that enable new ideas and new ways of working. This institute explicitly seeks to do exactly that.

Mars has committed $40 million during the next decade to catalyze institute activities focused on food, agriculture and health challenges. This is not a donation to UC Davis. The campus is also investing $20 million over the same time, putting real money behind its rapid move toward accelerating innovation to address society’s most critical grand challenges.

All of us win from these new and needed collective investments in innovation in food, agriculture and health. These societal benefits range from needed products and services, to economic growth of companies and regions, to universities that share in the rewards associated with jointly owning inventions and patents that help to fuel the cycle of innovation.

It was the Hatch Act of 1887 that provided funds to the land-grant universities, including the University of California, to establish agricultural experiment stations to “promote efficient production, marketing, distribution and utilization of products of the farm as essential to the health and welfare of people and to promote a sound prosperous agriculture and rural life.” Up to 25 percent of the funds were to be used for integrated research and extension activities.

Just as today all countries must see themselves as “developing countries” – developing new forms of energy, agriculture, transport and foodstuffs – so must every university be an “extension university”: rekindling the impetus of the Hatch Act and extending innovation into society.

We all need to play a role in this crucial mission. If we make the terrible mistake of starving our public universities today – of talent, of helpful outside partners, of the necessary financial resources – we might literally starve future generations.

Harold Schmitz is the chief scientist at Mars Inc., and a visiting professor at the Graduate School of Management at UC Davis.