What is Academic Entrepreneurship?

By Nalaka Gooneratne, MD, MSc

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Academic researchers are in many ways a great example of entrepreneurship. The entire process of setting up a research lab, identifying problems to study, managing a team, and obtaining funding is, at its core, a very entrepreneurial endeavor.  And it is innovative, because research that is not on the cutting edge of scientific advancement will rarely obtain the accolades and funding necessary to allow sustaining a lab.  So viewed from this perspective, if every academic researcher is an entrepreneur of sorts, what is “Academic Entrepreneurship”? 

In modern parlance, an entrepreneur is someone who starts a new business that is inherently novel in some way.  Academic institutions, however, are non-profit organizations, in most cases, and from the perspective of the government, cannot have profit as their primary motive.  So, yet again, we have this quandary of “Academic Entrepreneurship”.

I would argue that it is this inherent contradiction that makes the term so useful—it describes something that is unique.  Academic entrepreneurs are faculty at academic institutions that seek to incorporate aspects of commercial engagement into their research work with the ultimate goal of accelerating the actual implementation of their research in order to advance the health of the general population.  Let’s break that down a bit:

  1. Academia:  There are several unique aspects of working in an academic environment that pose challenges to academic entrepreneurship.  These include the appointment and promotion process, which often values traditional metrics such as grant funding and research manuscripts over actual implementation of technology in the public sphere
  2. IP/Regulatory:  Intellectual property is often carefully monitored by academic entities, which varying degrees of flexibility regarding licensing.  Major regulatory concerns exist, one of the most important of which is conflict of interest and ethical conduct of research, especially when involving the life sciences
  3.  Ideation: Academic settings are inherently creative places, yet ideation can be constrained by a tendency to isolate oneself from the actual customers that may use the technology or product (the “ivory tower” syndrome). 
  4. Finance:  The need for entrepreneurial endeavors to engage for-profit partners while originating in a non-profit academic institute creates both cultural and legal challenges. 
  5. People:  Any successful commercial project requires building a team, with each party having clearly understood tasks and financial rewards.  Yet academic centers often have a teacher/student model.  Aligning these two and creating open dialogue can pose unique challenges.

The good news is that there are clearly ways to address these concerns.  The opportunity for advancing public health by leveraging the strengths of academia and entrepreneurship is simply too great to ignore.

Nalaka Gooneratne, MD, MSc, is an Associate Professor of Medicine at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania | ngoonera@mail.med.upenn.edu

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