Academic entrepreneurial behavior: birds of more than one feather

Comments on an article by A. Castillo Holley and J. Watson published in 2017.

Life sciences researcher

The original article

Castillo Holley, A. and Watson, J. (2017) ‘Academic entrepreneurial behavior: birds of more than one feather’, Technovation, 64–65, pp. 50–57. doi: 10.1016/j.technovation.2017.07.001.

Quick summary

  • It is too simplistic to label academics as either entrepreneurial or non-entrepreneurial. Four categories of academic entrepreneurial behaviour (AEB) are defined: non-entrepreneurial; semi-entrepreneurial; pre-entrepreneurial; and entrepreneurial.

  • An academic can exhibit multiple categories of AEB at the same time, depending on the project. They might behave entrepreneurially with one project and not another. An academic can change their AEB over time.

  • Academics are more likely to engage in entrepreneurial activity when three conditions are met: they are aware of an opportunity to commercialise their research, they are not opposed to commercialisation within the university sector, and appropriate support is in place to engage in commercialisation.

More detailed comments

This study by Alicia Castillo Holley and John Watson investigates academic entrepreneurial behaviour by conducting in-depth qualitative analysis of 30 life science academics in Western Australia. The study is interesting because it shows that an individual academic’s entrepreneurial behaviour can depend on the project and can change over time. The study also proposes three factors that increase the likelihood of an academic engaging in entrepreneurial activity.

After analysing their interviews with academics, Castillo Holley and Watson identified four distinctive categories of academic entrepreneurial behaviour:

  • entrepreneurial academics who have previously participated in or were actively participating in licensing, patenting or a university spin-out

  • semi-entrepreneurial academics who were participating “at arm’s length” in commercialisation such as consulting (but not licensing, patenting or a university spin-out)

  • pre-entrepreneurial academics who were exploring ways to commercialise their research in the future

  • non-entrepreneurial academics who were not participating in entrepreneurial activity in any way.

Within the non-entrepreneurial group, the reasons for not participating in commercialisation varied, including being unaware of commercialisation opportunities, and being opposed to the university sector being involved in commercialisation.

The authors found that academics do not necessarily fit the profile of traditional entrepreneurs outside academia of being ‘opportunity seekers’ or ‘exploiters’. Instead, academics are more likely to engage in entrepreneurial activities when three conditions are met:

  1. they recognise an opportunity to commercialise their research

  2. they are not opposed to research commercialisation within the university sector, and

  3. commercialisation support (such as funding and promotion) is in place for the academic.

The first condition (recognising an opportunity) depends on the project. The second condition (not being opposed to commercialisation) depends on the individual. The third condition (commercialisation support) depends on the institutional environment. This means an academic entrepreneurial behaviour is not necessarily about an academic's views on commercialisation alone. An academic is also influenced by the project(s) they are involved with and the availability of support such as funding. Castillo Holley and Watson found an academic might behave entrepreneurially with respect to one project but not another project. Also, academics indicated they would not behave entrepreneurially towards a project if there was no funding or if there was no option to partner with industry.

The authors also found that academic entrepreneurial behaviour can change over time. One of the interviewees (who was non-entrepreneurial) had moved through three of the four categories of entrepreneurial behaviour over his career:

  • He began his career unaware of commercialisation opportunities (placing him in the non-entrepreneurial category).

  • He became aware of the potential for commercialisation and began enquiring about the process (placing him in the pre-entrepreneurial category).

  • He subsequently started a spin-off while remaining an academic (placing him in the entrepreneurial category).

  • The spin-off eventually failed, and he became opposed to research commercialisation (placing him back in the non-entrepreneurial category).

The authors conclude that academic entrepreneurial behaviour is a “complex and dynamic process” due to the relationship between the individual, the project and the available support. Therefore, it is important to consider the individual, the project, and the available support.

Many of the academics in the non-entrepreneurial category were unaware of the potential for commercialisation. Therefore, there is a possibility that these academic could benefit from information or training about commercialisation opportunities and processes. Some other academics in the non-entrepreneurial category were aware of the commercialisation possibilities. The authors suggest these might be persuaded to engage in commercialisation “if appropriate incentives were in place (both financial and in terms of academic promotion)”. Further, academics who were aware of commercialisation opportunities “might benefit from workshops designed to help them build industry partnerships”.

All interviewed academics indicated a strong interest in developing their research further. The authors conclude that knowledge creation appears to be more important than commercialisation, at least for life sciences academics. As a result, there is a possibility that an academic may start a spin-off to obtain research funding “without any real intention of making it a profitable long-term business”. The authors note that such spin-offs are “likely to have a lower probability of success because the goal of the academic entrepreneur is not to build a profitable company but, rather, to gain access to funding for research”.

Data used in the study

The data came from interviews with 30 life sciences academics in Australia. The interviewees included academics with no experience in research commercialisation (licensing, patenting or a university spin-out), academics with experience in commercialisation, academics involved in a university spin-out who had left academia and later returned, and former academics who had left academia to pursue commercial interests.