Value of academic entrepreneurship
Vibhor Pandey, 12 November, 2019
After spending 10 years in corporate world, I joined QUT as a student and practising academic, and I am fortunate to be involved in game-changing research projects and roles such as MIT REAP, QUT ACE, ACERE, AgriFutures, QUT Entrepreneurship, teaching the E/MBA and undergrad courses, alongside building an ultra-light edu-tech start-up, Grand Company in Brisbane. As part of my role with QUT Entrepreneurship, I’m tasked with helping academics and higher-degree-by-research students to experience the craft and spirit of entrepreneurship.
Here’s my attempt to demystify academic entrepreneurship and share my experience that I gained working with entrepreneurs, academic entrepreneurs, and ecosystem builders.
In my short stint here at QUT, I noticed a few common academic pathways that researchers take:
- left university and went to work for industry or government
- stayed back in academia
- a few transitioned back from practice to academia.
There are a few other unsung heroes who work in a full-time job (self or for others) and give back to the university. And then there are the brave ones who tread the path of entrepreneurship with their venture based on their research and technology they found/worked on. Whatever pathways one has taken, something we all can agree that in real life, things are much more complicated than in theory. For academic research, in most cases, to be more impactful it needs the litmus test of real-world trial and errors. This is similar to businesses whose performance is measured in revenue (or impact) than just awards and accolades.
‘Rigour of trial and error beats academic knowledge.’
First I am going to introduce you to a decade-old phenomenon called ‘Academic Entrepreneurship’ (AE) and share why do we need to celebrate, inspire and support academic entrepreneurs. The definition of, AE is, simply put, an academic or a group of academics having entrepreneurs-like characteristics which could range from procuring funding, accessing and controlling the resources, ‘“productising’ themselves by promoting, publishing, and pitching their research for real-world impact, or the traditional and most common ways of commercialising their technology for a bigger social and economic impact in the world.
In sum, academic entrepreneurship combines the characteristics of two complex fields – science and entrepreneurship. In a healthy capitalist society, an academic entrepreneur is the link between knowledge-creativity and the innovation-oriented real world.
Why do I think AE is important for a modern market-driven economy and why do we need to say it aloud?
AE is visibly common in the United States of America which data shows and a majority of the universities have research KPIs around that – patents, patent citations, and other commercialisation outputs etc. Universities are embedding entrepreneur capabilities into their courses and student experiences to equip students with what will be for a significant cohort of students, the future of work – entrepreneurship. For example, as of 2014, MIT alumni have launched 30,200 active companies, employing roughly 4.6 million people, and generating roughly $1.9 trillion in annual revenues. In the UK, the University of Cambridge and its Cambridge Science Park’s outputs are pretty impressive too – 1500 companies, with more than 50,000 jobs. ‘Exploration of knowledge’ is to the academic what ‘opportunity identification’ is to the entrepreneur, and combining the two would result in better social and economic outcomes than we currently have in Australia. AE is one of the most important outlets to future-proof the basic research and spur new models of innovation. Examples of these new models are visible in Australian universities with a growing number of university-based accelerators, incubators, and other event-based programs for student and academic entrepreneurship. Although we still need better models, CSIRO’s On Prime was one of them. Unfortunately, the program is not going ahead due to the funding cuts.
In Australia, with more than 51% of PhD graduates finding jobs in fields other than academia is a sign of a mature market, and to do well in the non-academic world the entrepreneurs-like characteristics and enterprise skills are relevant than ever. One of the reasons QUT Foundry and now QUT Entrepreneurship exists is the growing demand from our students. QUT students are the driving factor behind academic entrepreneurial spirit at QUT. The higher degree by research students that I meet are well equipped to help industries transition into knowledge economy however I also believe that a higher degree (mind the pun) of collaboration is needed for industries to understand the cutting edge research at Australian universities; and at the same time academics to be abreast of changing pace of the real world. With the omnipresence of digital transformation tools in the real world, it is much easier to broaden the reach of the academic research and attempt to go through the real-world trial-n-error process early in the career.
"In academia, there is no difference between academia & the real world. In the real world, there is." – Nassim Nicholas Taleb
How should we enhance the value of Academic Entrepreneurship?
I am not an expert in academic pathways but I have observed and studied several real-life examples from Australia and overseas in my role with QUT Entrepreneurship. These examples show that universities are no longer a place only for basic research and skilled labour, but a covert incubator for regional and national economic growth with a mandate to innovate and build businesses. I believe that academics will benefit from the following models of innovation.
Model 1: Understand the customer
There is a dire need to understand the customer. It could range from simply understanding the buyer of your research in a report or published paper format to a group of companies or government that will fund and invest in your technology.
Model 2: Five key person of influence
Academics should live and breathe ‘Five Key Person of Influence’ skills that are:
- pitch – having the ability to articulate the research to the general population
- publish – blogs, articles, and books along with journals
- product – moving away from rent-seeking behaviour and productising the research and self profile – personal brand, digital and social presence
- partner – early in your research partner with government, corporate, and SMEs.
Model 3: Invest in yourself
Invest in mandatory classroom learning of entrepreneurial processes i.e. innovation sprints, design thinking, networking, research leadership, research value creation, and tools and techniques of entrepreneurial journey etc.
With a slew of growth in entrepreneurial activities in Australian universities, research impact areas, the changing concept of academia, the evolved research processes, and influencing factors of academic entrepreneurship have become the key focus areas for most universities, and this is excellent news for the knowledge-based economy. To make it sustainable and more impactful, all we need is some more rigour in our systems approach to academic entrepreneurship, an entrepreneurial university that is.