Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Bridging the Gap between University Research and Commercial Success

Rory P. O'Shea, Thomas J. Allen

Stanford University, one of the US's largest research universities

As countries look to compete in an increasingly global economy, the pressure is on policymakers to find ways to make their corner of the world more conducive for technology-based startups. Recognizing that knowledge is the fundamental basis of competitive advantage, attention is inevitably focused on tapping into the innovative ideas that emerge from universities and turning more of them into successful commercial entities.

For the many universities that struggle to emulate this model, there is increasing pressure from governments to see some economic return from research investments. They must bridge the disconnect between researchers and the commercial marketplace. They must identify and replicate processes that are proven to work, facilitating a swift movement of technology from research laboratories to the front line of industry.

Six proven strategies will begin to drive the necessary change:

1. Build academic “steeples of excellence”

Universities with entrepreneurial ambitions must attract and retain “star” academic researchers capable of winning grants and enhancing the institution’s research profile. They will invariably have industry contacts and an instinct for spotting a commercial opportunity.

Star academics help create “steeples of excellence” that should steer faculty and students towards research that has a strategic fit with the university. By building up faculty strength in a few but significant research areas, and by attracting talent that is most capable of winning research grants in the chosen areas, the university will establish a technological foundation that encourages entrepreneurship to emerge. This has proved very successful for MIT and Stanford.

Without a distinguished faculty that has the ability to generate innovation in a chosen area, there will be little basis for spin-off creation. But be warned, it may mean rejecting research contracts that wander away from the university’s established expertise and goals.

2. Create academic leadership with a shared strategic vision

Commercial ideas are more likely to emerge from laboratories under the watch of academic leaders who have a strong belief in what they are doing and what can be achieved. Without a common leadership vision and supporting structures, where academic leaders facilitate and promote entrepreneurial projects, it is hard to break down the walls that separate research from commercial success.

The National University of Singapore (NUS) has played a pivotal role in the nation’s emergence as a knowledge economy because it had the strategic vision to embrace entrepreneurial development. By providing industry partnership and entrepreneurship support, it created organizational vehicles to spearhead change that has translated NUS research into commercially viable innovation.

Similarly, MIT’s central mission for technology commercialization that moves technology rapidly to industry for societal benefit, serves as a compass point for its academic leaders, keeping the institution on track as it makes decisions about resource allocation and research activities.

3. Integrate entrepreneurship with academia

To encourage successful spin-offs, universities have to change the mindset of students and academics to make them think and act more like entrepreneurs. To do this effectively, integrated and coordinated structures must be put in place to support the rollout of entrepreneurship programs.

MIT, NUS and the University California, San Diego (UCSD), achieve this through entrepreneurship centers, providing entrepreneurship education to all disciplines across the university in a coordinated and seamless manner. They drive innovation by empowering students with the skills to push an idea through to implementation. They learn to experiment, to take risks and explore new opportunities, to tolerate failure and strive to overcome obstacles.

4. Have structures that reward the university and the entrepreneur

A streamlined approach in the identification, protection, and commercialization of university intellectual property is essential for encouraging academic entrepreneurship. The university’s Technology Transfer Office (TTO) should be at the fulcrum, ensuring proper governance and a “can do” attitude.

Deals must be negotiated around IP that are mutually beneficial to the university and entrepreneur. Be prepared to forgo an immediate financial return in order to promote new partnerships that will benefit the university in the longer term.

Research shows that a rewards system will also foster a climate of entrepreneurship – such as a leave of absence that allows academics to pursue commercial opportunities while holding on to their positions in the faculty. It’s all about creating incentives rather than barriers, with guidelines that reduce the risk of conflict that might challenge the path to commercialization. 

5. Embed an entrepreneurial culture across the campus

Universities must look beyond short-term programs and build an entrepreneurial culture where entrepreneurial behavior is active throughout the campus and commercialization encouraged.

The essential character of successful entrepreneurial research communities lies not only in formal structures but also in the underlying values that inspire their development. Successful spin-off programs demand an enduring commitment from all of the university to promote academic entrepreneurship. It is an ethos that needs nurturing and is built upon incentives, rewards, and the investment of resources in the education of faculty.

Leading universities like MIT and NUS show how immersing the everyday life of the faculty in an entrepreneurial culture increases the chance of technology commercialization. Sporadic top-down initiatives will not produce the same results. There has to be an entrepreneurial ethos that permeates the character of university life.

Tacit acceptance of entrepreneurial activity must exist outside the upper echelons of university administration. It is the sense of obligation and commitment from academic staff to engage in the entrepreneurial process that sets top entrepreneurial universities apart.

6. Build regional ecosystems with industry and government

To advance an entrepreneurial culture and increase the likelihood of spin-offs, universities must develop policies that encourage closer relationships with industry and government.  Such strategies should be devised that enhance the research mission and profile of the research faculty.

An innovative feature of Stanford is its tight coupling of teaching, research, and technology transfer through close working relationships with industry. At MIT, active engagement between the university and the industrial community has become the very essence of the institution.

When two cultures are linked through concrete institutional mechanisms – entrepreneurial science in the university with entrepreneurial enterprise in the wider community – a foundation is in place to build companies, create jobs, and grow wealth.

About The Authors

Rory P. O'Shea

Rory P. O'Shea is the co-editor of Building Technology Transfer within Research Universities. He is a visiting professor in innovation and entrepreneurship at MIT Sloan and a facu...

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Thomas J. Allen

Thomas J. Allen is the co-editor of Building Technology Transfer within Research Universities. He is the Howard W. Johnson Professor of Management Emeritus at MIT Sloan....

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