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'Creative destruction fits well with the spirit and nature of our work'

Engineer, economist and business studies professor Ajay Agrawal explains how the University of Toronto’s Creative Destruction Lab helps campus innovators commercialize research breakthroughs.
BY Uma Asher |   05-09-2017
Ajay Agrawal is the Peter Munk Professor of Entrepreneurship at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management

Ajay Agrawal is the Peter Munk Professor of Entrepreneurship at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, MA, Co-Founder of The Next 36, and Founder and Academic Director of the Creative Destruction Lab (CDL). He teaches courses on business strategy, innovation, and entrepreneurship. He has been recognized as ‘Professor of the Year’ by the graduating MBA class seven times. His research focuses on the economics of innovation and creativity. He advises companies and governments in fields related to innovation and strategy. He took time out of his busy schedule for this email interview with BrainGain Magazine.

  1. Please tell us a bit about your educational journey.
    I grew up in Vancouver, and studied engineering before earning my PhD in Strategy and Economics from the University of British Columbia. I studied why universities in Canada struggle to help their research scientists achieve commercial success from their inventions. I joined the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto (U of T) in July 2003. I was named Professor of the Year by the MBA Classes of 2006-2013.
  2. Why did you found the Creative Destruction Lab? Why is it called that? And how do students benefit from it?
    I decided to found the Creative Destruction Lab at the Rotman School in 2012 to help campus innovators commercialize their research breakthroughs. We bring together fledgling entrepreneurs and technology startups with advisors or fellows who mentor them and help them set business objectives so they can become successful. Many of the companies use artificial intelligence and other leading-edge technology, and now our applicants aren’t just U of T students but come from all over the world.

    I named it after economist Joseph Schumpeter’s concept of economic growth as an activity in which older products and processes are continually destroyed and replaced by newer ones. Schumpeter coined the word “creative destruction” and viewed entrepreneurs as people who challenged the status quo. Given our focus on bringing university innovations to society through entrepreneurship, I thought the concept of creative destruction fit well with the spirit and nature of our work.
  3. Please tell us a bit about what and how you teach, and how students benefit from CDL.
    CDL has been really successful. The program doubled in size to two cohorts (50 companies) in 2016, due to demand. To our knowledge, this represents the greatest concentration of AI-enabled companies in any program on Earth.

    I involve MBA students in the lab through a course that merges the traditional business school classroom with the Lab’s activities. Students get real-life experience launching, financing and managing entrepreneurial ventures. I also teach corporate strategy and the economics of innovation in the PhD program at U of T.
  4. How do you envision Canada’s role in the future of Artificial Intelligence?

    Canada is leading the way in terms of AI. But we have to work to hold that lead. That’s why we announced a stream at CDL this year centered on companies developing quantum computing-based AI companies. Our goal is to create by 2020 more well-capitalized, revenue-generating quantum machine learning software companies than the rest of the world combined.
  5. As an educator, how do you think we should prepare our youth for the future?
    Currently, students are being front-loaded with education. The first 20 years of their lives they spend in school. After this time, they are not expected to continue learning. In a world where technologies are evolving so quickly and many jobs are becoming obsolete, it is imperative that young people continue to learn throughout their lives so they can adapt to new jobs. Therefore, the biggest key when educating young children is not necessarily the content that is being taught, but imparting the high value of lifelong learning.

In this 11-minute video, Prof. Ajay Agrawal discusses the economics of Artificial Intelligence at the 2016 Machine Learning and the Market for Intelligence conference

For more on innovation, check out these links!
Matthew Karau of NYU Abu Dhabi on studying Engineering Design
Engineer, entrepreneur and professor Ted Sargent on studying nanotechnology
Neurotoxicology professor Graham Nicholson’s spider venom business
Why Artificial Intelligence graduates are in red hot demand
A chat with Silicon Valley marketing pioneer Satjiv Chahil
Learning to embrace the impractical and think more creatively


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