Innovation on the Mind: A Conversation with Phil Weiser

By TAP Staff Blogger

Posted on December 18, 2012

Phil Weiser, Dean of the Law School, Thomson Professor of Law, and Executive Director and Founder of the Silicon Flatirons Center for Law, Technology, and Entrepreneurship at the University of Colorado, is just as busy as his title is long. He shares his experiences as an academic, founder, advisor to the White House and passionate professor of innovation and entrepreneurship.


TAP: What led you to join the University of Colorado faculty in 1999?

PHIL WEISER: At least two reasons. First, I had come to Colorado to clerk for Judge David Ebel on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals after law school and just loved it out here. Second, I had thought academia would be a great platform for to make an impact on public policy. The reputation of the University of Colorado and its law school made it the perfect place to build a policy center.


TAP: You served as the Senior Advisor for Technology and Innovation to the National Economic Council Director at the White House from April 2010-June 2011. What was your main focus?

WEISER: I had three areas of focus. First, I worked on the President's Wireless Spectrum initiative, taking ideas I had worked on as an academic and putting them into practice—namely, enabling TV broadcasters to voluntarily return spectrum that could be repurposed for wireless broadband. Second, I worked on a range of issues related to innovation policy, including the Administration's innovation strategy agenda, smart grid agenda, and patent policy reform. Third, I worked on Internet policy issues, including the development of an Internet governance strategy that emphasized multi-stakeholder processes.


TAP: You then re-joined the Colorado faculty in June 2011. What have you worked on since your return?

I re-joined the faculty as Dean of the Law School and am mostly focused on leadership and administration. Legal education faces a series of challenges, many of which result from a changing employment picture for recent grads. I am therefore helping Colorado Law students build the skills and connections they need to succeed in a dynamic environment. In terms of my scholarly engagement, I brought the work I did in government back to the academy. To that end, the Silicon Flatirons Center, of which I am still the Executive Director, published reports on important topics such as innovation policyInternet policy, and cybersecurity.


TAP: As the founder of the Silicon Flatirons Center for Law, Technology, and Entrepreneurship, what has been the most rewarding work?

WEISER: It is rewarding that Silicon Flatirons has earned the trust of policymakers, business people, and academics, becoming known as a place where people come to learn and debate what will matter in the coming 1-5 years. We’re also gratified that we have developed a trusted policy center that hosts wide-ranging conversations on the future of technology policy by convening the gamut of stakeholders to listen and learn from one another. There are several elements of this that are particularly rewarding. First, it is critical that we act as honest brokers by raising and exploring issues from all angles. Second, it is important that we look for ways to bring together different types of professionals—technologists, entrepreneurs, academics, and policymakers—who can have enlightening conversations. Finally, and this is the most rewarding, we immerse our students in this environment, give them stimulating food for thought, offer them valuable connections, and inspire them to enter the field.


TAP: Have you done any other entrepreneurship work?

WEISER: Silicon Flatirons Center is doing a tremendous amount of work in this area, much of which is lead by my colleague, Brad Bernthal. The Center’s Entrepreneurship initiative is turning the university "inside out," as my friend Brad Feld has said, by providing a valuable platform that convenes the community. These activities create an API between the university and the community to support entrepreneurs through Crash Courses, an Entrepreneurs' Unplugged series, a monthly New Tech Meetup, and much more. Building on the Entrepreneurship Initiative and my White House efforts, Brad Feld and I, along with Jan Horsfal, established Startup Colorado, a chapter of the Startup America Partnership.


TAP: What is the Digital Broadband Migration Conference? Can you explain its importance to innovation?

We started the annual conference in 2000 and it remains the "killer application" for Silicon Flatirons. The ambition of this technology policy conference is to be, as Vint Cerf put it, the "thinking person's policy conference," or, in a more colorful way, "the Davos of telecom." Many formative discussions around network neutrality took place at this conference, for example. Speakers include leading CEOs, FCC Chairs, FTC Chairs, Internet pioneers (both Robert Kahn and Vint Cerf), and influential academics. Every year, the discussions are captured in an issue of the Journal on Telecommunications and High Technology Law for wide circulation and broad influence.


TAP: Where do you think innovation policy is headed in the next four years?

WEISER: I would like to see it move up the agenda in Washington. The immediate pressures around the unemployment and fiscal situations are hard to get past. But over the long term, our economy must remain innovative and at the leading edge of technological change. It is easy to overlook or take for granted how the Internet boom created significant economic growth. As other countries become more innovative, America must stay competitive by laying the necessary building blocks for long-term innovation.


TAP: What do you consider the biggest innovation in the last few years?
WEISER: I am not sure we know yet.