November 16, 2009, 9:00 am
In a recent op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal, Carl Schramm, Robert Litan and Dane Stangler of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation called on policy makers to “unleash America’s academic entrepreneurs” as a way “to foster the creation and growth of new businesses.”
While I agree with the authors’ view that America’s academic entrepreneurs are an important tool for encouraging new business creation and growth, I believe that they underestimate the scope of academic entrepreneurship. They say that “currently, a university professor with an idea may commercialize it only by using his university’s technology licensing office,” but that view underestimates the vast amount of academic entrepreneurship that occurs outside of the university licensing system.
With some colleagues from Case Western Reserve University and the University of Bologna, I recently conducted a survey of nearly 60,000 academics in basic disciplines (e.g., math, psychology, electrical engineering, biology, etc. — not law, business or other professions) on their entrepreneurial activities. (As it happens, the study was underwritten by a nonprofit group, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.)
First, we found that academics are a pretty entrepreneurial lot. Approximately 16 percent of them run businesses that they founded. That makes academics more likely to be entrepreneurs than the average American. (So much for the old joke: “those that can’t, teach.”)
Second, while we found that a number of professors start companies to exploit inventions patented by their universities, there are also a lot of professors making commercial use of nonpatented know-how. Our survey showed that only one in three companies started by academics to make money from their research is based on the type of intellectual property that academics are required to commercialize through university technology licensing offices.
Third, it isn’t just science and engineering professors who are starting businesses. We found a surprisingly large number of professors in fields like anthropology, psychology, economics and history — fields that policy makers don’t even think about when considering “unleashing America’s academic entrepreneurs” — running businesses that were started to commercialize their scholarly activities. Moreover, in some cases, these businesses had created numerous jobs. One example is the 50-person business that one psychology professor had founded to commercialize a job-satisfaction and leadership-assessment tool he had developed.
If policy makers really want to harness the entrepreneurial talents of America’s universities, they should think more broadly than many observers suggest. They should develop policies that help to commercialize nonpatentable research in a wide array of fields. That’s where a lot of the action is.
Scott A. Shane is a professor of entrepreneurial studies at Case Western.http://boss.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/11/16/can-academics-be-entrepreneurial/