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The new wonder material
Much of the work that I have done involves transferring technologies out of academia or federal laboratories. The framework for academic spinoffs is that typically there are technical co-founder(s) who are the subject matter experts in the technology. But investors have declared the days of “professors as CEOs” to be over. So often there is a business person who is also at the table at the founding of the company to handle the business matters and to provide a steady hand as the company takes off. I’ve been that business person at least six times. Through those experiences I’ve come to learn that the way career scientists think are very different from the way entrepreneurs think even when they share the objective of wanting their startup to succeed. Call these differences in perspective, or cultural issues, if you will, between the motivations of academics and entrepreneurs.
Academics make their reputations based on what they know. They don’t “profit” from this knowledge until they publish it and can explain to others how to reproduce their work. Only then is their professional reputation enhanced and their research validated. Publication success is often a key factor in deciding whether an academic wins research grants or is offered tenure. For many academics, the recognition they gain by advancing knowledge in their field is sufficient motivation. But they will not see a meaningful financial reward for their work unless it is commercialized, usually by founding a successful business.
Business people and entrepreneurs have very different incentives and perspectives than academics (see Table 1). They don’t profit from their work until they create something that has commercial value, which often comes from exploiting privileged information. The best entrepreneurs I know are not concerned about getting credit for their ideas; the financial payoff is reward enough. The typical behavior of an academic — “Let’s publish!” — is the exact opposite of what one would want if the same technology were developed inside a company.
Table 1: Scientists and Entrepreneurs have different motivations, incentives and expectations. Copyright 2011 Illinois Partners Executive Services, LLC.
The pursuit of money by business people if often repugnant to dyed-in-the-wool academics, Continue reading