UAlbany School of Business dean sets sights on growth

Donald Siegel returned to Albany last year, this time to help academia commercialize the research in

The Capital Region did not impress Donald Siegel the fist time he visited, about two decades ago.

Siegel made that initial trip from SUNY-Stony Brook, where he was an assistant professor, for an academic seminar in Albany. He headed back downstate thinking Albany was nothing more than a “government town.”

“You don’t think of Albany as a place where there was a lot of private companies or technology,” said Siegel.

It’s an unlikely admission from the man who will play an important role in helping Albany cultivate its booming academic technological research industry as the new dean at the University at Albany’s School of Business.

Siegel’s perception of Albany changed by 2002, when he returned to the region, following university teaching stints in Arizona and England, He came back to chair the Economics Department at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy.

A year earlier, the University at Albany’s College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering had been named a Center of Excellence in Nanoelectronics. That designation solidified Albany’s status as a major player in the global technology industry. During Siegel’s four-year tenure at RPI, “I saw the transformation of the economy here.”

In 2006, Siegel took a job at the University of California-Riverside to manage a new MBA entrepreneur program. Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Advanced Micro Devices that year announced its intention to build a $3.2 billion computer chip manufacturing plant in Malta.

Siegel returned to Albany again last year, this time to help academia commercialize the research initiatives that two decades earlier seemed unfathomable. The 49-year-old expert on university technology transfer — the process of commercializing technology originating in academia — in July began serving as the dean of UAlbany’s School of Business.

“What’s missing in the region is the commercialization of the research … We want to be the catalyst for the effective commercialization,” said Siegel, a Brooklyn native who has settled in Niskayuna.

One key tool Siegel plans to wield to further cross-pollinate business and university technology research is a joint degree program between the NanoCollege and School of Business. The Nanotechnology Management Program, which was unveiled in 2005, teaches scientists and engineers how to be effective nanotechnology managers.

“I couldn’t be more excited about Don Siegel. He’s exactly what this area needs … Many people in academia don’t know how to get the light out of the bushel. He does,” said state Sen. Hugh Farley, a Niskayuna Republican who taught law at the School of Business for 35 years.

Other programs Siegel plans to pursue are ones that teach students how to manage and commercialize intellectual property and how to attract financing for commercialization endeavors. Another initiative he has in mind is an alumni commercialization fund, which would be a type of angel network for UAlbany graduates.

Siegel is also eyeing space in the yet-to-be-constructed School of Business academic and research facility for student-based enterprises. The 90,000-square-foot facility will sit on what is now the visitors’ parking lot near UAlbany’s business administration building and is slated to be completed in 2013.

Siegel hopes the culmination of those initiatives will produce more publicly traded companies spawned in area universities or their incubators, such as MapInfo and AMRI, which both hail from RPI.

Promoting an edge

The effort to churn more commercial projects out of university research facilities has been gaining momentum since 1980, when Congress passed the Bayh-Dole Act. The law — passed amid growing concerns the United States was losing its lead in commercializing innovative ideas — eliminated many hurdles for university technology transfer. It established a uniform patent policy across federal agencies, eliminated many licensing restrictions and allowed schools to own patents stemming from federally funded research.

Bayh-Dole and other federal acts designed to promote joint research ventures between companies and universities significantly increased the number of patents held by academia. They also resulted in a jump in revenues schools receive from intellectual property and research services.

That technology-based revenue stream has become more important for U.S. universities confronted with shrinking endowments and decreasing government funding. But at UAlbany, Siegel said his concentration on university technology transfer is more focused on job creation resulting from successful startups sprouting in academia.

“As universities strive to improve the success rate of their commercialization activities, they must preserve the inquiry-based research environment that currently exists in the university laboratory,” Siegel said in a 2006 report co-authored by Phillip Phan, a colleague at RPI.

“The substitution of less risky, applied research for high risk, basic research would result in fewer ‘home-run’ commercializable inventions, which would be consistent with the culture of entrepreneurship necessary for the formation of new business formation,” the report continues.

It was in 1981 — a year after Congress passed Bayh-Dole — when Siegel graduated from Columbia University with a bachelor’s degree is economics. He later returned to earn master’s and doctoral degrees in business economics there.

But first, after completing his undergraduate studies, he took a job as a securities analyst for a small hedge fund in New York City. For two years, Siegel worked at the hedge fund, mostly reviewing reports issued by publicly traded companies.

While working as an analyst, Siegel became increasingly interested in the question of why some companies do better than others. That question sent Siegel back to school, and his future research would later focus on university technology transfer, entrepreneurship, productivity analysis, private equity, corporate governance and corporate social responsibility.

In 2002, Siegel became the editor of the Journal of Technology Transfer and president of the Technology Transfer Society. The journal, published by Springer Science+Business Media, focuses on management practices and strategies for applying research for practical or commercial uses.

The subject of technology transfer has become increasingly important to the Capital Region, especially with AMD committing to build the chip fabrication plan in Malta and International Sematech moving its Austin, Texas, headquarters to the NanoCollege.

Sematech, a nonprofit semiconductor research consortium comprising companies such as International Business Machines, AMD and Samsung, in 2007 announced plans to relocate 450 workers to Albany. The Texas consortium pledged to match in cash and in-kind services the state’s allocation of $300 million for nanotechnology research and development at UAlbany. Such investments have pushed the NanoCollege’s employment ranks from 72 eight years ago to about 2,500.

“That’s an enormous opportunity for our business school,” Siegel said of the NanoCollege’s swelling employment.

Opinionated leader

At the UAlbany’s School of Business, Siegel started his first semester last fall with 1,450 students. About 1,000 of them are business and accounting undergraduate students and 350 are MBA students. In July, he succeeded Paul Leonard, who began serving as the School of Business’ dean in 2003. He stepped down in June to resume teaching finance.

Three weeks after the fall semester started for UAlbany business students, the nation’s financial crisis reached a new crescendo, with Lehman Brothers Holdings filing for bankruptcy and Merrill Lynch & Co. agreeing to sell itself to Bank of America Corp. Despite the economic carnage wrought, Siegel does not believe responsibility for the financial sector’s failures should fall on the nation’s business schools, which turned out the decision-makers leading the industry today.

“This is not a market failure. This is a government failure,” Siegel said.

The dean traced the financial crisis back to legislation, such as the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, through which the federal government required banks to invest in low-income neighborhoods. “I do not blame MBA students,” he said, noting that after graduation, their responsibilities include managing maximum profit efficiency and doing what is in the best interest of shareholders.

Siegel also disputed the claim that today’s global economic meltdown is as bad as the Great Depression of the 1930s. That period, he noted, was marked by double-digit unemployment and rampant bank runs, which are missing in the U.S. economy today. At UAlbany, the financial crisis will likely not prompt any changes in MBA program curriculums under Siegel’s watch.

However, Siegel does plan to turn UAlbany’s financial markets regulation center into a full-fledged research center. Through a 2006 partnership with Albany Law School, the university started a financial markets regulation program, which was designed to address fairness and accountability in the nation’s financial markets.

Even Sen. Farley acknowledged at the School of Business “There could be more law.” The planned center — in collaboration with Albany Law and the Rockefeller College of Computing and Information — would “link business and government” and “help understand and design regulations,” Siegel said.

“The problem with the market is … government is not doing its job,” he said.

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