Entrepreneurial academics need support

The rules and regulations at universities cause problems for academics launching start-ups

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It is a common lament that academics lack entrepreneurial flair. However, this perception appears to be far from reality. Drawing on a large-scale survey of thousands of UK academics sponsored by the Advanced Institute of Management Research we found that, on average, academics are five times more likely to be entrepreneurs than a member of the general public. Academic entrepreneurs are found in almost all disciplines, even the much maligned social sciences.

The best research often produces the greatest opportunities for entrepren-eurship. The most active academic entrepreneurs tend to be among the most productive researchers.

The primary motivation for academics to become involved in creating a venture is not financial but rather to help ensure that their research is developed and used. Academic entrepreneurs see entrepreneurship as an exciting and challenging activity, stretching their research into unanticipated ways. Very few academics say they are motivated by money or peer pressure to start their companies. The so-called Porsche effect – where an academic launches a venture because his colleague purchased a posh new car from proceeds of the business – is an urban myth.

However for many academics, starting a venture remains a daunting task. And although universities and business schools are keen to highlight the number of start-ups they have launched, their employment practices, rules and regulations often make it difficult for academic entrepreneurs. Academic entrepreneurs perceive higher barriers to engagement with industry than do other academics, which in turn signals the need for the further education sector to pay more attention to supporting entrepreneurs.

Critically, universities and business schools need to open the door to entrepreneurship rather than seeking to hold down and control the value of firms created by their staff.

Academic entrepreneurs see the main obstacles to be overcome when starting a company as a lack of time and resources. A means of resolving this would be for universities to consider creating entrepreneurial sabbaticals, alongside traditional academic sabbaticals. Academics also believe that their entrepreneurial activities count little in the promotion and recruitment decisions of their universities, which tend to prize research excellence over other contributions. If institutions wish to stimulate entrepreneurship among their staff, they need to provide appropriate rewards.

Universities and governments have invested in a range of programmes and institutions to support entrepreneurship, including technology transfer offices (TTOs). These investments have increased the scale and professionalism of academic entrepreneurial efforts. Yet many of those companies created by academics operating outside the formal university support system rely on the ideas and resources of individual academics, rather than formal intellectual property held by their universities. So far, university TTOs have appeared to be better at supporting companies based on patented technology, especially in the life sciences, rather than the development of service-based businesses operating in fast-paced markets. This suggests there may be opportunities for TTOs to widen their competencies to include support for service-based ventures

The strongest motivator for an academic to become involved in a venture is that it will increase the chances of their research having a meaningful impact. In this sense, it is not money, but impact that makes academics become entrepreneurs. Helping academics in their entrepreneurial efforts is an opportunity for universities and business schools to fulfil their wider objective of making a social and economic difference.

Markus Perkmann is a senior research fellow at Imperial College London and a fellow of the Advanced Institute of Management Research (Aim Research). Ammon Salter is a professor of technology and innovation management at Imperial College, a fellow of Aim Research and director of the UK Innovation Research Centre.

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