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Why Scholars Struggle to Launch Startups?

Eunice Yang’s entrepreneurial adventure started in her twenties when she became involved with her family’s carton manufacturing business. Following the company’s acquisition, she obtained a PhD and was appointed as a full-time mechanical engineering faculty at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown. Partnering with a nursing school colleague, she developed an AI-based solution to prevent the falls of elderly people. She desired to commercialise the solution rather than treating it only as a research project. Despite obstacles (she took a leave of absence and resigned shortly after 18 months), Yang created OK2StandUp, focusing her creativity on serving healthcare clients. Managing product development, research and teaching simultaneously for almost two years was difficult for Yang. Her experience can be an example to highlight the obstacles scholars face when looking to shift to entrepreneurial paths because of academic norms.

With extensive subject expertise and academic knowledge, academics like Yang can potentially deliver game-changing ideas to the startup environment. However, transitioning from academia’s intellectual fortress towards the rapid environment of startups is not without difficulties. This article explains why researchers frequently encounter severe challenges while moving into the startup ecosystem. We intend to illuminate this intricate subject by addressing these obstacles and providing practical solutions.

The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 changed how universities in the United States handled faculty inventions supported by government research grants. It enabled universities to profit from these breakthroughs, resulting in effective technology transfer departments that patent, license, and promote spinoff companies developed on academic discoveries. Students or partners promote commercialisation while the faculty assists. Universities foster innovation by offering time off, leaves of absence, and startup lab facilities. Some gain equity in faculty startups; a 2021 AUTM survey found that 92 out of 124 universities with 2021 startups held equity in at least one.

Scholar-entrepreneurs face difficulties in the long-term innovation development within academia despite existing support systems. Many young academics are forced to pick between academic and business interests. Tiffany St. Bernard, a postdoctoral fellow in Cornell Tech’s Runway Startup postdoc programme, exhibits this challenge. She established HairDays, a beauty tech startup, and is wary of juggling the responsibilities of being a professor and an entrepreneur. Having witnessed the hardships of entrepreneurially driven professors during her stay at Cornell, she is concerned that delaying her startup until after obtaining tenure will jeopardise her prospects of success.

The Scholarly Startup Enigma: Unpacking the Problems
The convergence of scholarly interests and entrepreneurial endeavours poses a distinctive set of obstacles. This section delves into the challenges that academics experience while shifting from academia to the fast-paced world of startups.

< Diverse Skill Set Requirements: Scholars engaging in entrepreneurial careers frequently face a harsh reality: the expertise that drove them towards success in academia may not be directly applicable to the startup context. While research and analytical abilities are important in academics, startups require various skills, such as business development, networking, fundraising and marketing. This mismatch can be intimidating, requiring an extensive learning curve.
< Risk Aversion and Uncertainty: Academia and entrepreneurs are on the risk scale at different ends. Scholars have become accustomed to the consistency of their academic activities, in which knowledge acquisition takes priority over immediate revenue. On the other hand, startups are defined by enormous risks, unpredictability, and the persistent possibility of failure. This innate fear of risk can prevent academics from taking the risky jumps required in the commercial world.
< Tension between Research and Innovation: Academic obligations are frequently overwhelming, allowing scholars with little time to commit to startup ventures. Balancing research, teaching, and administrative duties with the intense demands of founding and expanding a startup can result in frustration and reduced productivity in both fields. Eunice Yang, who had a tenure while developing her business, emphasises the tension between academic inquiry and innovation. The conflict between academic efforts and business endeavours arises due to the requirement to publish research findings and the need to protect intellectual property.
< Funding and Resources: While scholars may have availability to research funds and academic resources, raising capital for a startup presents a unique set of hurdles. Investors look for feasible business concepts, prospective markets, and scalability – factors that may differ significantly from academic achievement measurements. Mastering this shift in mentality while seeking financial assistance can be difficult.
< Recognition and Peer Valuation: For scholars, peer acceptance and acknowledgement are crucial, frequently exceeding administrative appreciation. Entrepreneurial ventures are evaluated on a case-by-case basis, which creates inconsistencies owing to informal evaluation standards established by colleagues and review committees.
< Perceptions of Entrepreneurship: Entrepreneurial endeavours can be interpreted incorrectly and potentially damage tenure prospects if perceived as diversions from scholarly commitment. According to Christian Catalini (a Research Scientist at the MIT Sloan School and Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Lightspark), such efforts are frequently unsupported and marginalised in academia. For Catalini, pursuing entrepreneurial interests frequently occurs outside typical responsibilities and may go unnoticed or unvalued by colleagues, potentially impeding academic advancement.
< Challenges and Disparities: Certain groups encounter greater challenges in blending entrepreneurship and academia. For example, women researchers face challenges balancing business ambitions with family duties. Immigrant researchers addressing tenure selections must also address the broader implications of their lives.
The path to tenure for scholar-entrepreneurs reveals fundamental problems deriving from competing needs, peer recognition, and existing inequities. Rethinking academic standards to allow for entrepreneurial interests might be key to keeping diverse talent and stimulating innovation in academia.

Solutions: Bridging the Gap
Bridging the difficult ground across academia and entrepreneurship necessitates creative approaches. Now, we’ll look at prospects that can assist scholars in overcoming obstacles, opening the path for profitable initiatives while preserving their academic obligations.
The notion of “multiple ways to salvation” in the tenure system, presented in 2013 by E. Gordon Gee (president of Ohio State University), is gaining support as a strategy to legitimise faculty entrepreneurship and accommodate varied academic focuses. Different institutions recognise teaching and research as integral parts of academic activity and accept the possibility of persons specialising.
< Recognizing Complementary Contributions: Some institutions recognise the beneficial relationship between teaching and research by providing specialised tenure tracks that value innovation and entrepreneurship alongside conventional research and teaching responsibilities.
< Incentivizing Impact over Publications: In a 2018 interview, Luis von Ahn, a former Carnegie Mellon University professor and co-founder of Duolingo, acknowledged the idea of rewarding academics and researchers based on their effect rather than their publishing output. This strategy is consistent with the shifting goals of younger scholars, who value rapid societal effect above many publications.
< Creating New Pathways: A distinctive professorial course with its criteria for assessment would be beneficial to facilitate academic entrepreneurship without altering the existing tenure structure. This would allow for a more equitable distribution of time and effort among research, teaching, and entrepreneurship.
< The Entrepreneurial Translator Role: Entrepreneurs are “translation specialists” who connect the gap between extensive research and practical use. This role distinguishes from standard academic positions by incorporating practitioner responsibilities such as “professor of practise” or “entrepreneur-in-residence.”
< Balancing Innovation Incentives: While encouraging entrepreneurship is important, there is fear that it may impede research productivity. This difficulty can be addressed through careful faculty selection, activity division, and modelling after researcher-practitioner roles in domains such as medicine.
< Embracing Interdisciplinary Collaboration: One possible approach is for researchers to cooperate with people with complementary skill sets. Scholars can solve the different problems provided by startups by collaborating with co-founders or team members with a business background.
< Cultivating an Entrepreneurial Mindset: Educational institutions can help develop a sense of entrepreneurship among students. Incorporating entrepreneurial coursework, mentorship programmes, and internships with businesses can assist scholars in getting exposure to the dynamics and difficulties facing the startup ecosystem.
< Flexible Academic Models: Academic institutions should develop more flexible approaches that allow researchers to pursue entrepreneurial endeavours without jeopardising their academic obligations. For example, decreased teaching loads or tenure norms allowing startup participation could give essential breathing room.
< Leveraging Research for Practical Impact: Scholars can concentrate on issues with real-world significance and commercial feasibility. They can use their expertise to generate breakthroughs that answer market requirements by combining their academic endeavours with prospective startup concepts.

Addressing the Entrepreneurial-Research Trade-Off
An important concern is the potential trade-off between recognising entrepreneurial achievements and maintaining robust research output. Mara Lederman, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School and COO of Signal AI, highlights the risk that overemphasising innovation-based incentives could impede fundamental research, ultimately slowing down significant commercial advancements. To overcome this, institutions should carefully choose academics who are eligible for such incentives and create a clear division of labour. This reflects real instances of faculty concentration variation, such as trade-offs between research and teaching through rewards such as reduced teaching loads and dedicated research time. This method, which maintains activity balance, has analogues in other fields, such as medical school professors engaging in research and clinical practice, potentially lowering scepticism towards scholar-entrepreneurs in innovation-driven sectors.

Concluding Remarks
The difficulties academics confront while transferring from academia to startups are diverse and deeply ingrained. However, as the disciplines of academia and entrepreneurship overlap, finding strategies to bridge this gap becomes increasingly important. Scholars may navigate the startup world more effectively by embracing multidisciplinary collaboration, cultivating an entrepreneurial mindset, pushing for flexible academic structures, and using research for practical benefit. The path from academic to entrepreneur may be difficult, but the potential rewards – personal development and societal effect – make the effort worthwhile. As academics and industry evolve, so must our approaches to supporting such an essential transition.

Author- MD. Tazrian Sarkar

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