Successful business incubation at universities is about much more than a capable technology transfer office (TTO) and strong commercialization policies. New businesses are born at universities because faculty and students have the freedom to develop innovative ideas and pursue new lines of inquiry. To emerge from the university successfully, these pioneering ideas must be accompanied by prototype development, market research, commercialization strategy, and effective fundraising. It’s the larger university ecosystem, not just the TTO, that fosters the collaboration and novel thinking that allows new businesses to thrive.
The pathway from idea generation to successful commercialization is far from uniform. The need for the broader university environment and an expansive range of programs and practices for facilitating spinoff development cannot be underestimated.
For our study of technology commercialization attempts by faculty and students at eight leading universities, we interviewed directors and staff of the TTO, entrepreneurship center directors, faculty engaged in entrepreneurship education, and students (or alumni), and faculty who have tried to commercialize their university inventions. We spoke to founders of 40 spin-offs.
The resulting paper, “University Technology Transfer through Entrepreneurship: Faculty and Students in Spinoffs,” offers insight into the broad range of programs and practices that facilitate new business creation: mentoring programs, business plan competitions, accelerator programs, entrepreneurship education for students and faculty, and project-based classes that bring together student teams to work on business plans and create roadmaps for commercialization. These programs also bring students and faculty together, allowing them to develop their ideas enough to reach the technical and commercial viability needed to attract experienced entrepreneurs and outside funds.
Collaboration between students and faculty appears to be a key component of early commercialization efforts. Attempts by faculty to commercialize their inventions alone are often problematic. University incentives typically discourage participation in commercialization efforts, and tenure decisions create enormous pressure for professors to focus their time and effort on academic work. Partnerships with others who can lead the commercialization efforts allow faculty to continue commercialization while pursuing their academic goals. About one in four of the faculty studied had, early on, attracted an experienced entrepreneur as a collaborator. But the vast majority of these spinoffs began as teams of faculty and graduate students.
New businesses require much more support than a single office can provide.
Most were between faculty and Ph.D./postdoctoral students (41 percent). Others included business school students (13 percent). Successful partnerships were typically characterized by robust faculty support, strong student interest and aptitude, clear communication, trust, and an ability to leverage campus entrepreneurship resources. The significant number (23 percent) of student-only efforts typically involved a master’s or Ph.D. student and a business school student.
Campus programs facilitate partnerships by introducing graduate students, post-doctoral students, and business school students to faculty and to each other. They also do much more—giving new businesses the resources to develop and test their ideas; offering education in business and entrepreneurship; and acting as incubators, giving them the freedom and time to develop their strategic lab-to-market plans.
Higher ed leaders want to see these new businesses emerge from their laboratories, but the partnerships also play an educational role. Teaching students about entrepreneurship as they pursue research can be seen as a key part of their mission. With more Ph.D. graduates in the U.S. than jobs available in academia, many graduates will need to consider alternative careers. University spinoff participation gives them a chance to explore entrepreneurship and make more informed career decisions. It enables them to see how laboratory research can have a real impact beyond the campus. It introduces them to the role that law and institutions play in facilitating entrepreneurship. And it allows them to contribute to the innovation and advancement that the U.S. economy desperately needs for ongoing growth and prosperity.