President Wintersteen Featured in National Conversations on Innovation

Iowa State University President Wendy Wintersteen has seen the future of innovation and it’s in the faces of students in every major and from every discipline.

In December, Wintersteen spoke at two national forums on the future of innovation in America.

Both — fittingly — were held the week that marked the 117th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first airplane flight at Kitty Hawk.

The Competitiveness Economy
Wintersteen was one of a slate of innovation leaders speaking at the virtual National Competitiveness Forum organized by the Council on Competitiveness. Wintersteen is a member of the council, which consists of university presidents, CEOs of major corporations, heads of national labor organizations and directors of national laboratories.

The day of the forum the council released Competing in the Next Economy, a new report calling for public policymakers to collaborate with the private sector to position the United States for a new, unfolding innovation reality.

The December forum focused on the national infrastructure needed to boost innovation and competitiveness in the United States.

Wintersteen said education and opportunity must be central to that infrastructure.

Pipeline of Innovators
“At Iowa State, we’re in the business of building the pipeline of inventors and innovators,” she said. “We’ve been a leader in innovation and entrepreneurship for a long time, and we’ve worked to open up the world of innovation to all students. Our Innovate at Iowa State initiative aims to create a vibrant ecosystem that infuses concepts of creativity and innovation into the curriculum and invites everyone to join.”

This year’s opening of Iowa State’s new Student Innovation Center was another step forward as a hub for students in every major to bring forward their creative ideas and put them to the test.

“We want them to think about themselves as our next generation of inventors,” said Wintersteen. “It’s exciting to see what it means for students to be an author on a scientific paper, to create new useful product, to jointly hold a patent with a professor, or to start a company to commercialize their work.”

Expanding American Innovation
Wintersteen also spoke at a forum on promoting diversity in U.S. innovation organized by Invent Together, a coalition of organizations, universities and companies. She is a member of the National Council for Expanding American Innovation, a group of industry, academic and government leaders tasked with helping the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office develop a national strategy for increased participation of underrepresented groups in innovation—as inventors, entrepreneurs, and innovation leaders.

Diversity is key to the future. “We should provide everyone who sees themselves as part of something new and exciting with the opportunity to get involved,” Wintersteen said. “If we don’t, we won’t have the best ideas to compete and innovate.”

Wintersteen recounted a recent visit to the Iowa State University Research Park, where she visited with a diverse group of students who’d formed a company.

“In the room were men and women from all walks of life, working together,” she said. “To date, they had submitted four patent applications. That’s the opportunity, to make that kind of experience part of the curriculum.”

The fertile ground
Education must be the fertile ground for opportunity, Wintersteen said.

“As Louis Pasteur said, ‘Chance favors the prepared mind.’ We should do our utmost to prepare young people as early as possible. Reaching students as early as K-12 may plant the seed of excitement, encouraging them to bravely explore science, technology and beyond. How thrilling it is to hear a young person say, ‘I am an inventor.’”

Diversity includes geography. Wintersteen emphasized that innovation is a mindset flourishing in Iowa and across the Heartland — it’s not a phenomenon claimed only by the coasts. She gave examples of critically important youth programs in Iowa that are helping build the pipeline of new inventors, including ISU Extension and Outreach 4-H Youth Development, Iowa Governor’s STEM Council, ISU’s Science Bound, summer research experiences like the George Washington Carver Summer Research Internships and the FIRST LEGO League.

Expanding diversity in innovation will mean great ideas coming from sometimes surprising places, Wintersteen said.

As another innovation leader remarked, absolutely no one would have guessed that two brother inventors working in a bicycle shop would be the first to successfully fly a plane.