Proposal to Fortify University Water Supply with Sanitized Cat Feces to Increase Innovation and Entrepreneurship

In a recent publication, business school professors and collaborators put forward evidence that a parasite found in feline excrement may be leading to increased entrepreneurial behavior. The reason, they argue, is that the parasite Toxoplasma gondii makes individuals it infects less risk averse and decreases fear of failure. The authors found that being infected with the parasite was positively correlated with students becoming business majors and professionals founding their own firms.

In this application to the university-wide FIRESTARTER grant, meant to provide startup funds for projects with the potential to bring in at least $2 million dollars in external funding, we propose to fortify the campus water system with sanitized cat feces, thereby potentially increasing entrepreneurship and intellectual property production among faculty and staff.

Universities face a difficult and uncertain economic future. After a generation of staggering tuition hikes that easily outpaced inflation, both customers (née “students”) and elected officials have expressed dissatisfaction, even threatening various legislative responses. Thus, significant tuition hikes — and the fantasy that customers will be willing to take on ever-greater debt — are no more.

Many universities have put increased hope in sponsored research, patenting, and start up creation. Universities profit in a number of ways from such activities, often earning 60% or more in “indirect costs” from funded research, for example. Opportunities are not infinite, but faculty members could always be doing more to win sponsored research, commercialize ideas, and found companies. Some universities’ engineering and science departments, for instance, explain to incoming junior faculty that they are expected to bring in x dollars per year if they want to even dream of tenure. Schools have also adopted digital surveillance systems to track how many research dollars each individual is bringing in as well as other revenue-generating faculty activity. Recently, at one university, a Vice Provost of Innovation using a surveillance system found that — unbelievably — faculty members in his college of humanities and social sciences were bringing in less than one grant per year. They produced even fewer patents and start ups. Those bums!

But university policies and programs to increase innovation have failed. The campus innovation center has a new, shiny, glass-covered building, in which its directors try to hide, wearing strained, thin-lipped smiles that say, “Please don’t notice that we aren’t creating any meaningful innovation here, and, in fact, we wouldn’t know how to do that because — like you — we aren’t even sure what ‘innovation’ means, hey, would you like to look at something in these virtual reality goggles?” Many higher ed administrators are at wit’s end, finding that how-to sessions for faculty, featuring platters of soggy sandwiches and flavorless hummus with dried, inedible husks of crudités, do not increase grant-writing, patent applications, or incorporations. Is there any hope?

Enter dirty litter boxes.

Eric Von Hippel classic work The Sources of Innovation examines how economic factors, such as research, users, and cooperation contribute to overall innovation. Perhaps today, there is a new, (not so) fresh source of innovation to be mined in basements, pantry closets, and other spaces-typically-unseen-by-visitors all around the nation.

This new source is superior, however, because it is biological. The study of the biology of creativity and innovation isn’t new, but little of it has led to exploitable practical outcomes. For instance, if we could beat the Chinese economically by giving our children innovation pills, surely we would be handing blues and reds to little Debbie and little Billy as we sent them off to coding camps, hackathons, and robot leagues or whatever. Sadly, no such drugs exist . . . perhaps until now.

This biological approach to innovation constitutes a new way of doing things that we will call Innovation Policy Paradigm Number Two — or Deuce for short. Deuce-ing can be hard and may even involve struggle. We will have to bear down to succeed, while acknowledging that shifting too forcefully may cause unnecessary and lingering pain. But we believe the time to act is now. The university should CAT-alyze change.

We agree with critics of our proposal who claim that cat waste would be better served to the entire population. But we believe such an approach will take considerable time, including because of public health regulations, whereas no one wants to protect professors. Moreover, college professors are well-known economic under-performers — resource black holes — especially when compared to successful members of the general population. For example, some of them study economically meaningless topics, such as poetry and German philosophy. Professors are also famously work and risk averse in other ways, as evinced by their soft hands.

Therefore, there are good reasons to do a trial run with this particular population. Furthermore, we argue that the trial should be allowed to proceed without the red tape of consent or even with the need to inform anyone. After all, should you really be able to choose not to be an entrepreneur? Especially if you are a professor at a public university, the answer to that question is certainly no.

Acting quickly on this proposal is crucial. Rumor has it that Design Thinking Bootcamps are already serving customers cat poop hors d’oeuvres. Clearly, feline excretion-induced innovation is something you want to be an early, not late, mover on.

It’s true that we do not yet know how to make cat turds safe for consumption, but we believe this is a detail that can be handled later as we build the system and ramp up production by sending students out to mine stinky kitty boxes all over the region. Cat dung is a potential gold mine, and moving forward is worth the risk. Surely, economic growth and innovation-driven quality of life improvements are worth a few measly cases of E. coli. I mean, right? Right?

Thanks to the great Adam Shapiro for a punny joke.

I do technology studies, co-organize @The_Maintainers, and profess Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech.