The Scientist as Entrepreneur
Navigating the Waters Between Academia and Commerce
In recent years scientists at America’s universities have seen—and in many cases participated in—a higher level of commercialization of their research. Where scientists once focused almost entirely on their research and left its practical application to others, they now have to decide how much they want to become involved in business spawned by their efforts.
A critical question in the debate over the commercialization agenda is whether it is having a negative or positive impact on the mission of universities. Sanjay Jain, assistant professor of Management, has been studying the issue from the scientist’s perspective.
“We found that there was a lot of introspection on the part of scientists as they became involved in entrepreneurial activity” Jain says. “Scientists didn’t want to stop being scientists; there were a lot of different ways they expressed their love for the research freedom of the university and said they weren’t willing to let that go.”
Jain and his colleagues, Gerard George and Mark Maltarich, report their findings in an article “Academics or Entrepreneurs? Investigating Role Identity Modification of University Scientists Involved in Commercialization Activity,” published in the journal Research Policy.
Based on their own interviews with scientific academics, as well as an oral history project conducted by a large Midwest state university, they outlined various ways in which the scientists addressed the challenge of getting involved in the commercialization of their inventions.
Typically, the result of research done by a university-employed scientist belongs to the university. Its Technology Transfer Office (TTO) decides whether or not to apply for a patent, then sets about licensing the patents that have been granted. Increasingly, those licenses are going to entrepreneurial start-ups, in which the scientist is in some way involved.
The paper reports that one reason scientists are willing to get involved in such a venture is that they can have more say in how their invention or research is used, or even if it is used at all.
“Sometimes new technologies are disruptive,” Jain says. “Some established companies are willing to acquire the rights to a patent so they can kill it and keep it from competing against their existing products.”
Having entered the entrepreneurial world, academic scientists develop a range of strategies for dealing with a new culture.
“Once they find out how different the business world is, some of them dive in and try to master it themselves,” Jain says. “Others try to take a more hands-off approach and use graduate students, university support, and business professionals to do much of the work. In a majority of the cases, however, we found that while these individuals are taking on a hybrid identity, they typically accord priority to their academic self over their entrepreneurial one.”
Universities have been going through their own changes as they attempt to profit from the scientific research they support, and as that revenue becomes more critical in a time of decreased funding. Jain says his paper suggests some of the things universities will have to do to retain their top scientists.
“The onus moves to the university to balance the need to provide mechanisms that enable scientists to take on these more composite personae,” Jain says. “This could mean changing the sabbatical structure, putting more responsibility on the TTO or getting involved in public/private partnerships. One way or another, the contract between the scientist and the university has to be modified.”