No Time for the Academic Entrepreneur

3/30/10

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 »

Anthony Rodriguez is a PhD candidate in bioengineering at the the University of Washington, and the president emeritus of the Student Engineering Business Association at UW. Follow @

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  • http://depts.washington.edu/uwc4c/ Rick LeFaivre

    Great article, Anthony. As a former professor, industry R&D executive, VC and on-campus business advisor, I can attest that this is a non-trivial process. It takes a strong partnership between entrepreneurial faculty members or students and more business-focused professionals who understand marketplaces and market dynamics. When it all comes together, it can be magic.

    The UW Center for Commercialization is putting a lot of energy into teaming up faculty with entrepreneurial business professionals to increase the number and quality of our spin-out companies. It’s an exciting time around here!

  • http://www.seattleinnovators.org Joe Brewer

    Hey Anthony,

    Thanks for bringing this important topic up. If you aren’t familiar already, you might like to read Judy Estrin’s book, Closing The Innovation Gap: Re-Igniting the Spark of Creativity in the Global Economy. She masterfully explores the entrepreneurial nature of the academic research world throughout the last half century.

    Of particular note is the convergence of trends in U.S. institutions that undermines innovation and stifles the very entrepreneurial spirit you describe here. Judy’s book tells this story throughout.

    We have to make wise investments in our innovation infrastructure and shape it according to sound principles – including the provision of space for long-term, open ended basic research that feeds technology developments and applications in other sectors of the ecosystem. Many of the vital supports of the U.S. system have been weakened or removed in recent decades.

    Such vital infrastructure must be wisely re-invested and rebuilt.

    Best,

    Joe Brewer
    Project Coordinator
    Seattle Innovators

  • http://www.paladinpartners.com Janis Machala

    Anthony:
    I love that you, as a PhD student, think about these things and are so insightful about the challenges that your professors face in their running of labs and teaching undergraduate and graduate students as well as mentoring graduate students. It’s amazing that any faculty member is able to see their inventions come into the commercial realm. It’s a long path, and not a straight path, from lab bench to market. Having more serial entrepreneurs tied into the efforts in commercialization can help augment the inventor’s time and smarts. I am glad we’re making a lot of progress in bringing together the outside world of business people and commercialization experts with university innovators.

  • Guillermo Garza Milling

    About your initial question.
    Entrepreneur is not a matter of academic doses, is an evolutionary methodology, far away of the content driven classes.
    Standard Incubators and BA models, are out of phase with the total entrepreneur cycle.
    Ask Technology people in the Industry to feed the Scientific at the Academia and value their participation.
    Experience or at least observation is part of the scientific method.
    If Academia are doing so well as Industry does, think about working one by one, with a strong feedback practice.
    Why not interchage works for a month or two.
    There is a huge potential working together.

  • Jeff Chamberlain

    Anthony, you’ve done a great job describing the primary difficulty faced by entrepreneurial-minded professors in translating discoveries in the lab into commercial products — there often is just not enough time to establish and maintain a successful academic lab and see that promising technologies find commercial applications. I also think it’s important to bring up the desired outcome that the funding agencies have in mind when dispensing the grant money. The majority of funding that professors have available to them is for supporting basic research, whereas only a small fraction of the available money goes towards translational science where the intended outcome is a commercial product. It seems to me that if more money was dedicated to the latter situation, and professors had commercial products as their deliverable, the time spent running a research lab would include effort to translate bench-work to applications. More startups would be generated because they would be starting with an actual product, for which much of the testing and trouble-shooting had already been taken care of, thus allowing the startups to focus on the business aspects of commercialization instead of the time- and money-intensive research. I realize that this is a somewhat naive and obvious observation but, ultimately, research and industry alike follow the money.

  • http://www.seattleinnovators.org Joe Brewer

    Jeff,

    You hit on a key distinction in Judy Estrin’s model of innovation. She describes a healthy innovation ecosystem as comprised of vibrant activities in three areas:

    1. Research
    2. Development
    3. Application

    If any of these three areas is inadequately supported (or the “bridge people” between them are absent), there will not be a flow of ideas from basic research to innovative application.

    It may not be the best place for research scientists in academia (or their corollaries in corporate research labs) to do both basic research and development, but both need to be present in order for innovations to happen across the academia-industry divide.

  • Anthony Rodriguez

    Thank you all for the comments. Jeff and Joe both had great observations. There is a process to innovation that needs money for it be executed. Each step to the process (Research, Development and Application) takes specific types of talents that do not necessarily overlap. But as Jeff said, people “follow the money.” Which is NOT necessarily a greed issue. It is an issue of acquiring the fuel to allow a person to follow their passions. So I think bridging the gap comes down to funding agencies scrutinizing the goals of their investments and setting up the necessary criteria for securing funding to motivate researchers reach the agencies goals. Also, I think for academia it comes down to individual departments identifying their goals and motivating their professors with carrots such as tenure to help them meet those goals. I do not think we should expect a commercial product from an academic lab as Jeff suggested. Time, resources, expertise are all large issues hindering that practice. But if academia can funnel some of the basic research to a point of initiating development, that would be a good head start for any entrepreneurial spin out.

  • http://www.chargedemission.org.uk Jonathan Jewell

    Hi Anthony,

    Interesting article here I think, from the perspective of a writer who is an entrepreneur from the commercial rather than academic sector. I pointed out your article on his blog and I can see that he’s commented on it now.

    http://bravethinkers.wordpress.com/2010/10/30/the-hitch-hikers-guide-to-entrepreneurship-an-introduction/

    I’d be interested in his thoughts and perceptions on the way in which academics follow lines of inquiry.