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Sunday, July 21, 2024

Why Is It So Hard for Scholars to Launch Startups?

Eunice Yang first tasted entrepreneurship in her twenties, when she helped run her family’s carton manufacturing business. Five years later, after the business was acquired, she enrolled in a PhD program at Pennsylvania State University. By 2014 she was a tenured professor in mechanical engineering at University of Pittsburgh–Johnstown. After being approached by a colleague in the nursing school, Yang developed an AI-based solution for preventing falls in older adults (rather than detecting them after the fact).

“I said, ‘I’ve got to make this,’” Yang tells me. “If it's a reality in my mind, and if it's working on paper and the computer algorithm is showing that it can, then I can't just stay at University of Pittsburgh and treat this as a research project. I need to commercialize this.”

For two years, she tried to build the product while also meeting her research and teaching commitments, but the combination was impossible to sustain. Eventually she decided to take a leave of absence, and after 18 months she resigned and formed OK2StandUp, which serves nursing homes and other health care clients.

Yang’s story illustrates some of the challenges faced by those who develop entrepreneurial interests from within academia—a world that may be ill equipped to accommodate them. “The scholar-entrepreneur is an unknown person. The scholar-entrepreneur is typically viewed by the established academy as suspicious,” says Ruth Okediji, a Harvard Law School professor and codirector of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society.

Universities are gold mines of potential sources of impact, says Joshua Gans, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and chief economist of the Creative Destruction Lab. “There are Rembrandts in the attic,” adds Gans, referring to output produced by academics “all around the world who have done work that is capable of being commercialized.”

University-based commercialization took off in 1980, when the Bayh-Dole Act allowed US universities to retain ownership of, and profit from, faculty inventions built using federal research funding. The profit is shared with faculty inventors and external partners. Academic technology transfer offices have since become well-oiled machines for patenting and licensing innovations, and also producing spinoffs. Tenure-track faculty typically assume advisory or consultant roles while students or other partners lead commercialization. Universities often allow a modest weekly time allowance or temporary leaves of absence to explore opportunities, and they may rent lab space to startups. Institutions sometimes take equity in faculty startups; according to a 2021 survey conducted by AUTM, which represents US technology transfer professionals, of the 124 surveyed universities with startups formed in 2021, 92 held equity in at least one.

While existing support structures work reasonably well for faculty members dabbling in innovation, there is no long-term road map for more involved scholar-entrepreneurs, forcing many early-career scholars to eventually choose between one or the other. Tiffany St. Bernard, a postdoctoral fellow in the Runway Startup postdoc program at Cornell Tech, is currently at this fork in the road. She is the founder of HairDays, a beauty tech company that uses computer vision to give recommendations about hair care. St. Bernard is hesitant to try building her company as a faculty member. During her graduate years at Cornell, she saw how entrepreneurially inclined professors struggled to straddle the two worlds, even amidst the rollout of university initiatives encouraging innovation. She’s also worried that waiting until after tenure to launch her startup would lower her chances of success. “It would be harder to have the energy and stamina when I’m older to go the entrepreneurship route,” she says.

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The difficulty of being both a scholar and an entrepreneur is most visible in the quest for tenure.

As an early-career scientist, I’m conscious that for people making decisions about their careers, tenure conveys a sense of belonging that is not only professional and intellectual, but also social and personal. In addition to being meaningful as validation of research excellence, tenure is often touted as a form of citizenship, a North Star for academics who hope to participate fully in the community for the long term. 

But the demands of pursuing tenure can be difficult to negotiate. Eunice Yang, who already had tenure by the time she started her company, notes that while both research and innovation can advance the academic mission, they can clash when it comes to issues such as research transparency. “To get tenure, you have to publish. You have to print journal articles. So being an academic and trying to run a business, you can't publish, because now you're publishing your secret sauce,” she says. This tension, even when applicable to only part of a scholar’s research, is certain to cause challenges unless faculty entrepreneurship is treated as a dimension along which universities strive to excel, rather than a threat to traditional activities.

Another obstacle comes from the fact that not all colleagues value entrepreneurship as an activity compatible with scholarship. For scholars to succeed, recognition by peers is almost more important than that of university administrators, because academic departments initiate promotions, says Shiri Breznitz, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. Letters of support from colleagues at other institutions are also a critical input for most tenure cases. Entrepreneurial contributions are considered on a case-by-case basis and often subject to unwritten rules, leaving fates dependent on the makeup of evaluation committees. Yet in many cases, colleagues are skeptical of entrepreneurial pursuits. Multiple scholars who've been involved in tenure review processes have told me that even for those who exceed expectations in terms of scholarship, entrepreneurial activity can be viewed as indicating a lack of focus or dedication. Taking on such activities is therefore a gamble for pre-tenure scholars, and researchers in this position can carry a double load—one mired with uncertainty.

“It’s not well supported and encouraged,” says Christian Catalini, who took a leave of absence from the tenure track at MIT Sloan to lead Meta’s since-disbanded digital currency project Diem (formerly Libra) and eventually resigned. He is now a cofounder and the chief strategy officer of Lightspark, which builds infrastructure to help enterprises send and receive payments over the Lightning network. “If you are doing these things, you’re doing them almost on your own time, and they’re not going to count,” he says. “If colleagues know you’re dedicating time to these things, it may hurt your chances, actually, of progression.”

Another challenge is that some groups are less able to pursue entrepreneurial activity, or more likely to have to leave to pursue it. “There are a lot of disparities; there’s a lot of inequity in entrepreneurship in general. And academic entrepreneurship is no different. If you are a young woman scholar trying to start a family, this becomes a big issue. And it’s very difficult,” says Fernando Gómez-Baquero, director of the Cornell Tech Runway program. “If you are an immigrant for whom getting tenure might mean staying here and actually having a home and a life after all these years of being in immigration limbo, there is an additional cloud behind it that makes it very complicated.”

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In 2013, E. Gordon Gee, then president of the Ohio State University, advocated for “multiple ways to salvation” in the tenure system. This has been used to support tenure-track appointments focused on teaching, but its logic extends further. Some universities have begun to recognize teaching and research as complementary contributors to the academic enterprise, and accept that individuals may specialize.

There has been some progress in this direction. A coalition led by Oregon State University recently proposed recommendations for more systematically recognizing innovative activity, and the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities has expressed support for considering technology transfer activities in promotion and tenure decisions. Similarly, in a 2018 interview, Luis von Ahn, who was a professor at Carnegie Mellon University when he cofounded the language-learning platform Duolingo with his then student Severin Hacker, lent support to the idea of incentivizing professors and researchers based on impact rather than publication output.

Crucially, the goal is not to change expectations for research or teaching specialists, but to create a new pathway to legitimize faculty entrepreneurship and reduce uncertainty for those with a broader focus. Instead of overhauling the tenure system entirely, one practical solution could be to create a professorial track with its own evaluation criteria (and perhaps its own version of tenure), allowing academics to formally exchange time and effort between activities (research, teaching, and entrepreneurship).

One can conceive of entrepreneurs as “translation specialists” who conduct rigorous research and are also drawn to implementation. This would be distinct not only from traditional research-focused faculty positions, but also from roles such as “professor of practice” or entrepreneur-in-residence, which often integrate former (or current) practitioners into the academic world through teaching and mentorship.

A reorientation may also help attract increasingly impact-minded rising scholars. “I sense in the younger generation a stronger desire to see society use their technologies more rapidly,” and a willingness to “give up a few publications to make that happen. Because that's the tradeoff,” says Donald Siegel, a professor and co-executive director of the Global Center for Technology Transfer at Arizona State University.

One concern is that rewarding entrepreneurial achievements might lead to reduced research output. Mara Lederman, cofounder and COO of Signal AI, who is currently on leave from her role as a professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School, says universities need to weigh the risk that offering innovation-focused incentives—particularly if done on a broad scale—could actually undermine commercialization efforts, by slowing down the fundamental research that has enabled the biggest commercial breakthroughs.

Universities should address this by carefully considering how many and which faculty are a good fit for such a model, and agreeing on a clear activity split. There is precedent for variation in focus among faculty members, such as officially sanctioned tradeoffs between research and teaching. Examples include teaching buyouts or teaching load reductions earned as rewards, providing additional time for research. This idea of shifting emphasis between activities in a net-neutral manner can be applied here. Plus, researcher-practitioner models exist in other fields. For example, medical school faculty tend to combine research with clinical practice. Creating similar models in innovation-leaning fields may reduce the skepticism that scholar-entrepreneurs face.

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It’s important to decide both what to count and how to count it. Experts and scholar-entrepreneurs agree that not all innovative ventures should be seen as equivalent—or given equal credit—in the eyes of a university. “I don't think that everything that is innovative is morally neutral,” says Harvard Law's Okediji. “The place to begin is with the standards that you use to evaluate, to decide whether this company has advanced the public good or not.”

Universities should offer proactive guidance for the entrepreneurial application areas, scale, and milestones that would be institutionally meaningful. Furthermore, credit might depend on the specific role played. “Being involved in fundraising pitches or operational issues—that may be very important to the future of a startup, but it really isn't the type of activity one would expect from a faculty member on the tenure track” in sciences, says Stephen Sencer, an attorney at law firm Ropes & Gray, who previously served as senior vice president and general counsel at Emory University. “In contrast, there are many scientific roles with startup companies that are directly applicable,” he says. When it comes to assessing success, Sencer advises against valuing only commercial success, citing the role of luck and other factors, as well as the misalignment between financial incentives and the qualities that predict a valuable faculty member. In addition, not all entrepreneurs, particularly those in non-STEM fields, even start companies or follow the most common entrepreneurial models. Allowing flexibility for other forms of activity is critical to avoid imposing a single model of innovation, says Andrew Nelson, a professor at the University of Oregon.

Finally, tenure decisions are time-bound, while entrepreneurial success may not appear within the same window. “Sometimes it takes a long time for us to appreciate what that technology did,” says Okediji, adding that this goes in both directions: Some things that were once celebrated (e.g., diesel auto engines, which revolutionized transportation) are now considered harmful.

Whatever the setup, guardrails are needed. Universities already closely manage financial and ethical concerns regarding conflicts of interest, conflicts of commitment (i.e., use of time), use of university resources, student involvement, intellectual property, and ownership. Some of these issues, likely to intensify under an entrepreneurship track, can be addressed through carefully and fairly designed salary packages or arrangements that allow scholar-entrepreneurs to reimburse some portion of public funding before taking a profit, depending on individual activity breakdowns.

We should also strive to avoid exacerbating existing inequalities. “You want to maintain the university as an egalitarian space. So if one person's technology brings them $200 million, they can buy out their courses with more frequency than other people. They can hire more research assistants than other people,” says Okediji, adding that such situations already arise with other sources of funding, such as internal grants.

Structured flexibility to redefine academic contributions would allow universities to meet their obligations while offering legitimacy that may attract talented scholars who would otherwise give up on academic careers. It might also embolden existing scholar-entrepreneurs to make bolder bets.

Entrepreneurship is inherently risky, and recognition by peers and institutions is just another challenge that scholar-entrepreneurs face. Lifting this barrier could be groundbreaking; the world has too many problems for us to not unleash a ready and willing supply of brainpower in search of solutions. It would be a shame to leave those Rembrandts sitting in the attic.

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