Academic and entrepreneurs: true or false dichotomy?

As an academic in the field of entrepreneurship, I cannot help thinking if I should become an entrepreneur myself. In Finland and elsewhere, popularity of entrepreneurship as a career path increased spectacularly in the last couple of decades. Entrepreneurship is gradually becoming transdisciplinary in universities of various kinds. And universities in Europe are making a conscious strategic shift towards becoming more entrepreneurial, to better serve society and economy. The universities are actively working on entrepreneurship strategies, but is the marriage of being an academic and entrepreneur made in heaven?

True dichotomy

An entrepreneurial university, apart from knowledge transmission and research functions, acts as an incubator for professors and fellows to start-up, patent own results and transfer new knowledge or technology into industry. However, while the European universities aspirationally foster creation of spin-offs, they give somewhat limited account to the differences between entrepreneurial and academic competences. Some of the generic competences overlap and might well characterize entrepreneurial academics, e.g. attraction of funding, research idea generation. But involvement in an academic start-up or spin-off, especially at the early career phase, can be a matter of choice between staying in academia and full-time work on the new venture creation. Earlier this year, I had an honour to talk to a number of academics who co-founded spin-outs at a British university. Our conversations confirmed this contention.

Most recent research findings from the Academic Entrepreneurship as a Social Process project suggest that entrepreneurial intentions are inversely related to perceived academic skills and conventional employee characteristics such as critical thinking and conscientiousness. Indeed, highly successful entrepreneurs usually challenge the status quo and change the world with their endeavours. Creative destructors and positive non-conformists, they often break rules and subvert existing systems to create new systems and values. This behaviour is at odds with conformity and adaptability expected from paid employees, including academic researchers.

In the meantime, universities continue developing entrepreneurship strategies, support measures and incentives for academic entrepreneurs betting that one can be an academic and an entrepreneur at the same time. Where might the grains of truth be in this stance?

False dichotomy

The concept of academic entrepreneurship differs in Europe and the United States, where the Triple Helix Model originated (now – Quadruple Helix Model uniting university, industry, government and society). The academic community in Europe is highly productive in terms of scientific papers, but all European countries lag behind the United States in terms of patents per capita and the ability to commercialise research outputs. This is explicable with differences in national systems of innovation (see Wright et al.’s book ‘Academic Entrepreneurship in Europe’ published by Edward Elgar in 2007). The European system is much less favourable to creation of new firms, translation costs are high, most universities are public and face legal barriers to spin-off firms. In my view, that might be the reason behind broader understanding of academic entrepreneurship in Europe. Large scale science projects, contracted research, consulting, patenting/licensing, spin-off firms and academic start-ups, knowledge and transfer partnerships, external teaching, sales or any other kind of entrepreneurial activity outside the university run in parallel with academic commitments would qualify one as an academic entrepreneur. Such a diversity of activities increases the likelihood of academics identifying themselves as an entrepreneur or intrapreneur.

Just like entrepreneurial identities of students differ (see Prof. Jarna Heinonen’s blog), so do the identities of academic entrepreneurs. The dichotomy between an academic and entrepreneur may have true and false facets depending on the type of entrepreneurial identity one embraces, which, in turn, might be related to personal situation of an individual as well as to the organizational culture. My conversations with academic entrepreneurs revealed at least three types of identities: hard-working pragmatics, romantic adventurers, and non-conformist risk-takers. Hard-working pragmatics are individuals who manage to maintain their academic position while running own small businesses during weekends, being involved in knowledge/technology transfer partnerships or other entrepreneurial activities. Romantic adventurers are individuals who come up with ground-breaking findings but have no major interest in commercializing their research doing science for the sake of science. Academics who work on spin-offs tend to be, often non-conformist, risk-takers. It might be a challenging career situation of some academics that forces them to take risks and choose between staying in academia or working full-time on a start-up in favour of the latter. Entrepreneurship strategy at university is then said to normalise the idea of one being a researcher and an entrepreneur for romantic adventurers, that ‘making money is good thing and one can still be an ethical expert academic’; to increase the number of hard-working pragmatics and to support risk-takers in their subversive and constructive endeavors.

No dichotomy?

Summing up, I ask – is there a dichotomy between academics and entrepreneurs? What if it is just a stereotypical resistance, an obstacle to inclusive growth that can be overcome? Picturing highly successful entrepreneurs as ‘bad and loud guys’ who destroy existing order to create their own would not lead far, in as much as many create socially responsible businesses and generate positive social change. Picturing academics as ‘nice and quiet guys’ who have years to produce meaningful research outputs that can end up on a nearby bookshelf would not be fair, in as much as these academics educate future entrepreneurs. This is also a good reason to remember that human nature is a product of human design, not the other way around. It is up to an individual to choose how to run a venture, what value system to adopt and principles to follow.

Here and now in 2017, I am wondering what kind of an academic entrepreneur I might be in the future – lazy pragmatic, hardworking risk-taker or non-conformist adventurer… However, the best hunch is that I should better enjoy my post-doctoral present and tune into teaching the new generation of happy humans.

Inna Kozlinska, post-doctoral researcher at the Entrepreneurship Unit, University of Turku


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