Laudatio for Professor James Utterback
delivered by Professor Koenraad Debackere, promotor
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Innovation is by now generally recognised as the major driver of economic growth and welfare creation in the world. As a consequence, scientific theory development and management practice of innovation have received attention from scholars, practitioners and policy makers. This has resulted in a variety of perspectives and insights on the innovation process and its outcomes. Although those perspectives are complementary and hence jointly lead to a better understanding of how to stimulate and expand innovation activity, there are only a few individuals who have effectively crossed boundaries between them. Professor James Utterback is one of them.
After graduating from engineering school, he started his career as a researcher in the area of manufacturing and innovation strategy with the late Professor William (Bill) Abernathy at Harvard Business School. Jointly, they developed and validated the insightful and highly cited Abernathy-Utterback model on product and process innovation, a model that is still widely used in innovation research and practice today. Jim then went on to become a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he would spend the rest of his rich and varied academic career. Innovation, though, remained the central theme and focus of his career. Jim became fascinated by the development and growth of new technologies. This resulted in numerous studies on technology development and modelling. It led to the seminal book Mastering the Dynamics of Innovation, published by Harvard Business Press in 1994.
Today, the book is a standard text for everyone, scholar or practitioner, who wants to better understand and come to grips with the dynamics of the emergence and development pattern of a new technology. This fascination with technology development led to a growing interest in the effects of entrepreneurship, new venture creation and venture capital in the going-to-market of new technologies. Jim embarked upon numerous studies and activities in this area.
Not only did he study the phenomena of technical entrepreneurship and growth in the United States, but he also became a frequent visitor of the European innovation scene, taking part in many national studies on start-up and spin-off creation. One of the notable and remarkable studies in this context is his joint work with colleagues at Chalmers University of Technology on spin-off creation in Sweden in the 1980s. This study is still a classic work in the world of venture policy today.
Jim’s interest in innovation, venturing and growth was not confined to the realm of scholarly study, however. He wanted to bridge the gap between theory and practice. This led him to become one of the pioneers of the Industrial Liaison Program and Office at MIT. During the 1980s, Jim acted as its visionary director and helmsman, building the MIT-ILP into one of the premier icons of academic technology transfer in the world. In doing so, he inspired many universities around the globe to move towards a better, more visionary, more professional organisation of their technology transfer activities. MIT-ILP also became a role model for Leuven Research and Development (LRD). Jim’s scholarly work proved to be highly inspirational, leading to such initiatives as the Gemma Frisius Fund.
In the meantime, Jim became a valuable and much appreciated colleague, acting as an advisor and guide to many technology transfer scholars and professionals all over the world. Always willing to provide insight and advice, always collegial, always wise and reflective.
It is not astonishing that Jim’s combined scholarly and organisational competencies and experiences made him a valuable colleague for managers at high-tech companies. He became a member of the advisory boards of such advanced technology-driven companies and organisations as Intel and Argonne National Laboratory. This enabled him to sharpen his scientific insight and embark upon novel scientific journeys in areas such as the origins of breakthrough innovations and the importance and impact of design-centred innovation.
In sum, for over forty years, James Utterback has contributed in many ways to the many evolutions in the field of innovation theory and practice. He is a remarkable scholar and a highly appreciated colleague to many of us. For all these reasons, I ask you, honoured Rector, on the recommendation of the Academic Council, to confer the degree of doctor honoris causa of KU Leuven upon Professor James Utterback.