Fostering Innovation in Macau: Lessons from Georgia Tech

February 6, 2017   |   International Dialogue

By Ruth Hayhoe

Given the research interest on universities and innovation in CIHE, I thought it would be good to share a recent experience of international dialogue on a small scale. It was a meeting of the International Advisory Committee of the University of Macau, held at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and hosted by the President, who serves on this committee, along with former presidents of University of Illinois Urbana Champaign and Texas A&M University, as well as a senior official from the National Science Foundation and the President of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

In a way it is a story of two universities, one old and one new, and how learning takes place across continents and cultures through communication among their leaders. The University of Macau was founded as a private institution in 1981 in colony that had belonged to Portugal for five centuries but never had a university. In preparation for Macau’s return to China as a special administrative region in 1999, it was made public. In 2007 the appointment of a visionary leader from Mainland China, who had a PhD in computer science from UMass Amherst and had risen to Dean of Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic, set the stage for a series of dynamic developments.

The new rector negotiated with Beijing for one square kilometer of land on a nearby island in the China Mainland, which was ceded to Macau for a new campus, and then connected by tunnel. The buildings were designed with both cultural sensitivity and a determination to emphasize openness and access, including 12 residential colleges where students live with highly reputed scholars who lead the liberal education foundations of their programs. Top faculty have been recruited from around the world, and worldclass research has been fostered in key areas such as cancer genetics and the storage of clean energy. The next step is to ensure this research can contribute to economic development in Macau and the region.

At this point – enter Georgia Tech, a public institution founded in 1885 with a focus on fostering technology for industrial development, that has some parallels with its sister land grant institution, which focuses on agriculture. Its President was recruited by Rector Zhao to his International Advisory Committee and he graciously hosted our one day meeting on the Georgia Tech campus. Former Chancellor of University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, another IAC member, made the point that innovation has become the fourth mission of universities, after teaching, research and public engagement. No university could exemplify that better than Georgia Tech.

We were taken through a new building with large open laboratories that purposely placed research groups in different areas together to foster inter-disciplinary collaboration. Parallel to that the main student services building also houses a wide range of student laboratories interspersed with informal meeting rooms to encourage student interaction.


We were also taken to Tech Square, a part of the campus devoted to the incubation of new companies and support for innovation in traditional companies. Here the Advanced Technology Development Centre (ATDC) has a small staff supported by the state whose mission is to provide space and expertise for the spawning of start-up companies, which will provide local jobs. New companies are allowed to stay for up to three years when most become viable and move to their own quarters. At the moment 50 new companies emerge each year and the aim is to advance this number to 100. To create more space the university has purchased the historic Biltmore Hotel nearby.

Another interesting dimension of their work is supporting innovation in major companies such as AT&T and Keysight, a spin-off from Hewlett Packard. It does this by providing rental space for the fostering of innovative technology which draws on the proximity and expertise of their faculty, postdocs and doctoral students and is purposely at a distance from headquarters that may be heavily bureaucratic.

Clearly the University of Macao has much to learn from Georgia Tech.  Georgia Tech’s president was also deeply impressed by the balance achieved at the University of Macau in establishing residential colleges with senior academics living with students to foster a culture of the liberal arts and community engagement while also promoting cutting edge research in key areas of priority.

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