Yesterday I had an interesting conversation with a former student of mine who is a scientist and recently submitted her PhD. The conversation surrounded the perceived lack of academic entrepreneurs — Professors who were interested in starting businesses themselves, or who could advise students who wished to do so. Or even those who are tolerant or encouraging of cohorts and students who desire to do so.
I made the point that if universities or their schools or departments want to, they can increase the supply of academic entrepreneurs, and thus the supply of spin-outs and student start-ups, and even of consulting contracts with outside companies and social organizations.
Universities can change policy to reflect their desire to recruit academic entrepreneurs. There are a few ways I’ll suggest here, but many more exist (any ideas?).
REQUIRING NEW ACADEMIC STAFF TO HAVE ENTREPRENEURIAL EXPERIENCE OR INTENTIONS
Any new job postings for, say, science-related research staff / faculty positions could strongly prefer, or even require, current or past entrepreneurial experience. Or require at least the desire to start a firm, or play a role in a start-up in the future. The university at either the central or departmental level can start to conciously recruit academic entrepreneurs.
This reminded me of some advice I gave to Syracuse University a few years ago that wanted to increase its entrepreneurial activity on campus, especially in technology-related businesses. Syracuse not only has an excellent, top-ranked Public Policy programme, but also a very good medical programme to which interacts. I suggested that the hospital make a concerted effort to recruit “MD- Inventors”. In the past I had interacted with a few of these through the Stanford Medical School, and helped them do market research and write business plans for their new medical technology inventions. Having a few MD Inventors around the hospital and medical programme will undoubtedly lead to some medical device start-ups.
FREEDOM TO PLAY
Just as academics / faculty need “academic freedom” to produce real valuable contributions to the intellect, they need “entrepreneurial freedom” to explore new business opportunities. They need room and space to play. Many university environments do not afford them with the opportunity to do things that are fun, to experiment, and explore. How many universities have true incubators? Not many, despite the lip service.
REWARDING ACADEMIC STAFF FOR ENTREPRENEURIAL ACTIVITY
Universities can reward its faculty and academic staff not only on research results, but also on the entrepreneurial activity in which they engage. This is a long-standing argument that deserves new attention. I’ll blog about this one more. Needless to say, if a university / government / region wants more spin-outs and start-ups, then the institution needs to ensure that proper incentive systems are put into place.
PAYING THE SALARY THAT IS NEEDED TO ATTRACT TALENT
Another important component of attracting good academic entrepreneurship talent is the simple matter of a solid, competitive wage. More than competitive is needed, actually. To recruit a high caliber of talent, a university will have to step up to the plate and pay the wage that is needed. Another alternative is to create a “kill what you eat” environment and culture.
SETTING UP SLUSH FUNDS FOR FUNDING PROJECTS
To address the gap in early stage financing of new ventures, universities should consider slush funds that might fund activities in the early stage, both on the R & D side. These monies should be “easy to get at” and flexible in conditions. This will help encourage academics to experiment and start new firms. Also, it will attract new academic entrepreneurial staff that find these funds of value to their endeavors.