Matching different entrepreneurial models to the academic scientist's individual needs

Comments on an article by M. Würmseher published in 2017.

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The original article

Würmseher, M. (2017) ‘To each his own: matching different entrepreneurial models to the academic scientist’s individual needs’, Technovation, 59, pp. 1–17. doi: 10.1016/j.technovation.2016.10.002.


Quick summary

  • Barriers to starting a spin-off include the academic’s entrepreneurial motivation and entrepreneurial capability. The study compares three spin-off models which differ in the level of involvement and capability required of an academic: a) inventor entrepreneur, b) founding angel, c) surrogate entrepreneur.

  • If academics are more aware of the models they may be more likely to go ahead with a spin-off.

More detailed comments

Background

The study was conducted by Martin Würmseher of ETH Zurich (the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, Switzerland).


Würmseher provides a useful summary of two potential barriers which may discourage academics from commercialising their technology:

  1. Motivation to be involved in a commercialisation project: previous literature indicates that for most academics, being involved with commercialisation while simultaneously working as an academic can be a major psychological challenge because it represents a shift in identity. Academics are often not willing to give up “cherished facets” of their academic role. For these academics, an entrepreneurial approach is needed which enables them to “develop a focal academic role identity alongside a secondary entrepreneurial persona”.

  2. Entrepreneurial capability: Würmseher describes three competencies required to succeed with a new venture:

  • an ability to identify and develop an opportunity

  • an ability to champion the venture and attract business and managerial expertise

  • an ability to acquire the resources to commercialise the opportunity.

Würmseher says these capabilities are challenging for almost all entrepreneurs and especially for academics wanting to maintain an academic role. Also, “it is possible that a considerable number of commercial opportunities are lost due to the scientists' reluctance to adapt their roles and/or due to the lack of these three entrepreneurial capabilities.”


Three models for spin-offs are described. The models differ in the level of involvement and capability required of an academic:

  • Inventor entrepreneur (IE): the academic is solely responsible for all entrepreneurial responsibilities.

  • Surrogate Entrepreneur (SE): a surrogate entrepreneur has the business expertise to commercialise a new technology without the support of the academic originator. Although it is not essential for the academic to be involved, it is helpful for the academic to provide advisory support due their technical knowledge, particularly in the early stages.

  • Founding Angel (FA): a founding angel is an active co-founder with the academic. The FA supplements the academic by providing finance, business experience, a business network and technical knowledge. The academic is integral to the spin-off and is actively engaged in the spin-off. This is a middle way that may be preferable for academics not wanting to give full control to somebody else.

Traditional models of technology transfer assume that an academic chooses either the IE model or the SE model. The FA model is a more recent addition.


Findings

Würmseher found that commercialisation is more likely when support is available from experienced entrepreneurs and “scientists do not have to cope alone”. Scientists could envisage getting involved in a spin-off if they had an appropriate partner. For these academics, the FA model is a suitable approach”.


Würmseher says the SE model is most appropriate for those with little interest in commercial activities. The IE approach is suitable for those who want to bring their discoveries to market on their own. There is a need for an intermediate approach because most interviewees said their lack of entrepreneurial activity was due to a lack of entrepreneurial support.


Comments from academics indicate it is important for FA co-founders to have characteristics required of the founding academic, such as a strong technical understanding of the field. Würmseher recommends that the FA has several years of R&D experience in the field. The article also includes an extensive discussion of other preferred characteristics of the FA but the information is not included here for brevity.


Würmseher says universities and public research organisations tend to assume that the commercialisation is undertaken by the inventor. The interviewed technology transfer officers said the FA approach had not been explored.


Finally, Würmseher believes it is important for there to be a general awareness of the various models, even for scientists reluctant to engage personally in an entrepreneurship and prefer to stick to research and teaching. When applying for research grants, it is typically advantageous to present a path to market.


Data used in the study

The data consisted of interviews in Switzerland with:

  • 16 professors of ETH Zurich in three departments (Mechanical and Process Engineering, Biosystems Science and Engineering, Materials Science)

  • 9 alumni (all CEOs in spin-off companies) of the three departments

  • academic entrepreneurship experts (3 technology transfer officers, 2 founding angels, a business angel, a spin-off coach).