University Technology Transfer Through Entrepreneurship: Faculty and Students in Spinoffs

Graduate and post-doctoral students are critical participants in university commercialization efforts, according to this study, which examines students' roles in university startups and compares the functions and responsibilities of faculty, entrepreneurs and students in successfully moving university innovations to market.

The authors, Wai Fong Boh (Nanyang Technological University), Uzi De-Haan (Technion – Israel Institute of Technology), and Robert Strom (Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation) analyze four to eight cases of technology commercialization attempts by faculty and students at each of eight major U.S. institutions.* They conclude that four primary pathways lead to spinoff development.

A partnership between faculty and an experienced entrepreneur represented 23 percent of the commercialization cases in the study. According to interviews conducted by the authors, most faculty consider this partnership the ideal pathway to technology transfer, but experienced CEOs often are reluctant to join a startup team in a venture's initial stages. Consequently, the other pathways – partnerships between faculty and Ph.D./post-doctoral students (41 percent); collaborations between faculty, Ph.D./post-doctoral students and business school students (13 percent); and student-only ventures (23 percent) – emerged as alternatives to grow the startup to a stage at which an experienced entrepreneur is enticed to join.

Independent of their technology transfer offices, many of the eight universities studied have implemented mentoring programs, business plan competitions, accelerator programs, entrepreneurship training for students and faculty, and project-based classes that bring together interdisciplinary or MBA student teams to work on business plans and create roadmaps for commercialization. According to the study, these programs and practices have enhanced entrepreneurial efforts and allowed the universities to serve as business incubators.

The researchers point out that institutions differ in implementing these practices, however. Some have created structured networks, while others have permitted organic development; some leverage outside resources for entrepreneurship, and others make internal entrepreneurial resources available to spinoffs. Some institutions focus both internally and externally, creating connections between internal programs and individuals, in addition to attracting resources from outside the university.

Regardless of their specific approaches, the study says, universities should establish an environment that encourages new business creation on their campuses. At present, there are more U.S. Ph.D. graduates than there are jobs in academia. Spinoffs have the potential to provide viable, alternative career paths for post-doctoral students and to provide the United States with continued innovation and economic growth.