No Time for the Academic Entrepreneur
The recurring question I hear from so many people in business is: “Why aren’t more startups generated by the university system?” It’s not an easy question, certainly not one to be solved in a single blog post. As I considered the many facets of academia that influence the actions of its researchers such as government policies, university culture, funding agency metrics and so forth, I realized that the obstacles and challenges faced by professors are similar to those of most any startup.
Academic scientists must in fact be entrepreneurial minded in order to maintain the funding they need to not only survive, but thrive in academia. The outsider would be mistaken, however, if they consider the lack commercialization from academia as a sign of a lack of entrepreneurial muster. Considering an academic lab as a startup in its own right, most researcher professors make a wise entrepreneurial decision by remaining focused and not spinning out one of their ideas into a new company.
Scientists are primarily motivated by the excitement of discovery and unveiling of new understanding of the world. In both academia and industry, you can find similar types of scientific minds who either probe the boundaries of understanding, seek to improve a current technology, or even invent new ones. They all share the passion to solve difficult problems and questions through scientific discovery and innovation. In industry, the direction of their intellectual pursuits is decided by the business minded individuals who identify interesting problems through market opportunities and customer needs or wants. Larger companies can afford to allow some of their research staff to perform exploratory work, but many define the research goals for their scientist and place blinders on them to increase their speed and efficiency. In academia, however, the direction of the ship is steered the scientist themselves, allowing them to pursue any question at the whim of their curiosity. For the same reasons an entrepreneur leaves a major corporation, a scientist will avoid industry for the freedom to explore or tinker or create whatever they desire in academia.
Universities are equipped with the infrastructure and funding support to feed the curiosity and need for independence of academic scientists. The modern research university owes its existence to World War II and President Franklin Roosevelt’s recognition of the critical role of the U.S. science and engineering understanding to its military success. His awareness, along with the famous report by Vannevar Bush called “Science-The Endless Frontier,” drove the development of several funding agencies during and after the war. These agencies where founded on the idea that the nation’s healthcare, economy and national defense will dramatically and rapidly improve from continuous, organized funding of university research to expand our scientific understanding. Under that mandate, professors who receive government funding are bound to a mission of creating and disseminating intellectual capital to provide society with a return on their investment in the form of knowledge. The expansion of knowledge by academia works in tandem with industry to increase commercialization and innovation by creating more opportunities for new scientific products.
Like a CEO, securing funding is the No. 1 responsibility of a research professor. If a professor loses their funding, they can potentially lose their lab and, if not tenured, their faculty position. Much like the early-stage entrepreneur looking for seed funding, a professor must prove … Next Page »