This week’s Startup Capital interviewee is Dr. Tim Moore. Dr. Moore is the Vice President of Research at Tallahassee’s Florida A&M University (FAMU), and in this role he’s vitalizing research at the university via public-private partnerships and a novel approach to STEM research and education. In the interview, Dr. Moore talks at length about the collision of entrepreneurship and academic innovation, as well as how Tallahassee is on the cusp of an “explosion” in entrepreneurial activity.
How has research impacted the growth of FAMU?
Well you have to look back, because the university is 129 years old. Like most universities, it started primarily as a completely didactic educational program. About 35 years ago, the decision was made to go from an instructional program in the areas of education, mechanical arts, and social services into science and technology. That was under President Humphries.
At that time, enrollment doubled, and they began a nascent research program. From those humble beginnings, we’re the now the largest HBCU (Historically Black College or University) in terms of research and we’re ranked 199th nationally out of about 600 plus universities that do any kind of research.
It’s very impactful, because it changes the complexity of faculty, the type of student we bring in, the opportunities for innovation, and, frankly, job placement following graduation from FAMU. Degrees that are largely devoid of hands-on or any kind of practical innovation around science are going to be in relatively low demand as we go forward.
“The large employers of the past are not going to be the employers of the future.”
Take medical school, for example: regardless of a 4.0 GPA, companies are placing a high premium on undergraduate research. It’s that experience that sets a student apart. So these are all pieces of a larger puzzle that allows us to provide our students (who are really our clients) with meaningful opportunities to grow and thrive.
As we make a transition as a nation in the next 10 or 15 years, you’re going to find that most large employers are not going to be a destination of choice. You have these young startups popping up, like Cuttlesoft, and a lot of entrepreneurial activity. That’s where industry is going. The large employers of the past are not going to be the employers of the future.
The ability to innovate, understand technology and business, and the ability to communicate are all intertwined in the twenty-first century marketplace. That’s what has changed here.
From the perspectives of the university in terms of impact on society, now we’re seeing something different. We have profound partnerships with the U.S. government to do diversity of workforce in the areas of science, technology, engineering, math, and agriculture. Consequently, we’re being tasked by the government to be a thought leader, an innovation house, and to help train the next generation of scientists and policy makers that will be helping out our country.
So those are the profound changes. To me, that’s a one hundred and eighty degree turnaround. I’ve tried to change my position here to really become a cheerleader and to provide energy and operational financing to try and get things started.
I think we’ve been largely successful; our proposal volume has exploded in the last year, we’re up almost seventy percent year over year, our award volume is up five percent, and our revenue streams are up a pretty good margin as well. So all those are good indicators that we’re in the right process.
Lastly, when you look at the federal government’s research portfolio, which is in the tens of billions of dollars, ten percent of all federal research is guaranteed by federal law to be minority set-aside programs, such as woman-owned small businesses and minority programs such as ours.
“Don’t just count the names around the table as to who can do the work; let’s build teams.”
In our case, there is literally more money sitting out there than we have mouths to eat it, which is a good problem to have. What I’ve tried to bring to the table in terms of our clients, both our federal clients and internal, is to expand the scope of these programs. Don’t settle on a smaller program — be aggressive and look for a larger program. Don’t just count the names around the table as to who can do the work; let’s build teams comprised of industry partners, academic institutions, and subject matter experts, to see how we can solve some of the problems vexing our society.
As a result, what we’ve got is a swagger that’s coming back to this organization that is rightly deserved. I’m excited about it.
How have the growth of all these academic and research programs fed back into the city?
If you look at any economic model, academia is usually considered a 2.5 or 3.5 times multiplier for investment. For every dollar that’s in payroll at the university, multiply it times three and that’s the economic impact. In the past, we only looked at state and federal dollars when calculating our impact.
When you throw in research dollars, which don’t come from the fed or the state, that’s found money. That really is a much larger proportion of that 3x multiplier. We’re getting great impact there. The other part I’ll throw out for consideration is that we have a very unique mission set here.
As an HBCU, when you look at our role, we not only have the ability to become thought leaders in research and STEM, but we also have a social responsibility. When you look at the racial atmospherics of this country right now, they’re not ideal. It’s not a good thing or a bad thing, but it is a thing.
If you go back and look at the civil rights movements of the fifties and sixties, the HBCUs played a pivotal role in being thought leaders and energy sources. The students were really the ones who galvanized the thought and the march towards non-violent social change.
“We have a place where thought, examination, careful consideration, and lessons learned can have a home.”
Unfortunately, with all of the successes that occurred in the last half-century, we now find ourselves back in a position where we have a concept that there are two Americas, two judicial systems, two law-enforcement systems. So as a result, we need to reestablish ourselves as thought leaders in this area.
What I’ve been working on, which you would probably consider to be non-standard research endeavors, is trying to partner with foundations to provide necessary injection of liquidity so that we can begin to galvanize thought around what our role is and how we begin to insert ourselves in the national narrative. If we don’t do that, in my humble opinion, we’re relegating America to be occupied by polar opposite positions. We need to have this middle, thoughtful ground. It doesn’t mean we’ll always agree, but it means that we have a place where thought, examination, careful consideration, and lessons learned can have a home.
With that, we’re able to insert ourselves as a national leader and national voice in this area, which is absolutely fitting and proper in my opinion. I think we’ve got some wonderfully talented faculty and some brilliant kids — frankly, they don’t know how smart they really are — and I think if all we have to do is put the right pieces together, put some money on the table, and get out of the way and let the magic happen, to me that’s a mom-and-apple-pie story.
So we have a scientific mission and a social mission. One final mission, which is also a scientific and a global social issue, is food. We’re going to have two-and-a-half more billion people on the planet in the next thirty years; where is the food going to come from? You start looking at our role as an 1890 land grant, we have a unique space in which we can train the next generation of minority and veteran farmers and ranchers and so forth. So we have to take advantage of that as well.
Talent acquisition and retention are major pain points for local tech businesses. What avenues are there at FAMU for businesses to source talent locally?
Let me tell you what I’ve really adopted early on, and I’m going to stick with it because I think it’s the right approach: Domi station is a unique enterprise here, I’m a big advocate of Domi and let me tell you why.
We have the Jim Moran Institute at FSU and that’s a wonderful program, don’t get me wrong, but I have a pathological fear that entrepreneurship is not something that’s contained in four walls and a structure and an org chart – entrepreneurship is more of a spree, it’s a thing. You can’t really define it. It’s like my father used to say: “I don’t read music, but I know when somebody hits a bad note.” You know it when you see it.
Domi is a unique enterprise because it’s “come as you are.” Whether you’re eighteen to eighty, any spectrum of the race, gender, or sexuality element, they’ll take you at your word and at your worth. That to me is invaluable.
Because that really represents where America is going. We’re going to be a majority minority program in the next forty years, so we better figure out how to work together. And if we’re going to do that, it’s going to be through a combination of the role of academia and the role of innovation.
Academics are capable of tremendous innovation; they can become tremendously smart people in the areas of thought, innovation, science, medicine, and all of these great things. But commercialization and entrepreneurship are a bit of a different slant. In the near term, we’re going to see a unique collision between the Domi world and the academic world where I think the excitement is really going to be.
“If we take the brilliant minds of the academic world and the enthusiasm of the entrepreneurial world and slam them together, great things happen.”
So that’s how you retain good talent. You retain good talent by giving them an outlet. You’re in your early twenties. When I was in my early twenties, I was in the military. I had never even heard the word entrepreneurship. I ran with Domi Station, and we financed an entire code academy at our Developmental Research School, and K-12 students were going through entrepreneurship and learning how to write code and build mobile apps. That’s the future.
If we want an outcome, we’re going to have to start early on and foster that process all the way through. I’d rather do it with people who are coming at it with a different perspective. I’ve always found in my life that serendipity is a cool thing. We just have to get out of the way and let it flourish and germinate and do what it does best. If we take the brilliant minds of the academic world and the enthusiasm of the entrepreneurial world and slam them together, great things happen.
To me, that’s how we’re going to retain the talent.
When you look at greater Tallahassee, there’s 75,000 kids just like you [young professionals and graduates]. We are not doing a good job of giving you a place to live, buy a house, rent an apartment, buy food, have a beer, whatever. That’s got to happen. I give credit to the mayor and the city council because they’ve fought hard over the last four or five years to build that culture. And you’re seeing it.
I think it’s going to explode. If you look at the S-curve of microbial growth, there’s an inappropriately labelled part of the curve called the “lag phase” where there’s no growth, and to the naked eye the organism is not reproducing. That’s a lie. The organism is busily making proteins and synthesizing all of the things necessary to explode and go exponential. We’re at that lag phase.
We’re at that point right now where we can be a leader in the area of building a very diverse — in both race, gender, and whatever measure — innovation industry. So the talent is out there, but we’ve got to give it a place. Once that conversion begins to stick and the Cuttlesofts of the world become the routine and not the outlier, that’s when you’re going to see people flocking to this place.
It’s overwhelmingly clear that research at FAMU, under the guidance of Dr. Moore, has a bright future. We expect to see some serious innovation coming out of this fantastic program in the coming years. As Tallahassee continues to attract the best and brightest students from all backgrounds, the leadership of those like Moore in conjunction with other city players will be vital to the city’s continued growth as a hotspot for entrepreneurship and STEM research.