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Highly Motivated Students, Faculty Play Key Role in Successful University Spinoffs

August 15, 2012

With their vast knowledge about technology and access to expertise inside and outside the university, graduate and post doctoral students play an important role in helping spinoff successful companies. Moreover, universities should encourage students to explore entrepreneurship through spinoffs as a potential career option outside of academia. This recommendation is among three guidelines outlined in a recent report that examines the important roles of students and faculty in the university technology transfer process.

Citing that prior research examining tech transfer and entrepreneurship in universities has neglected the important role of student entrepreneurs, the researchers studied technology commercialization attempts by students and faculty from eight universities across the country focusing on the initial stages of spinoff development. Researchers identified four primary pathways that led to commercialization based on the varying roles of principal investigators (PI), experienced entrepreneurs, post-doctoral students, and graduate students.

Faculty members who want to commercialize their inventions consider a partnership between a faculty PI and experienced entrepreneur to be the ideal arrangement. This pathway represented 23 percent of the commercialization cases in the study. However, attracting entrepreneurs in the early stages of a venture often is difficult because experienced CEOs are reluctant to become involved at this stage. Other pathways, such as partnerships between faculty and post-doctoral students from their laboratories, highlight the critical role students can play in the technology transfer process. For example, this pathway can facilitate the growth and development of a new venture until an experienced CEO is willing to join the effort. Researchers found this partnership works well because students are highly motivated and familiar with the technology. Furthermore, adding a business graduate student to the partnership allows for a stronger industry perspective.

Findings from the study also indicate that the larger university ecosystem has a significant impact on technology transfer. Several universities already offer programs and practices to enhance entrepreneurial efforts for commercializing technologies independent of their tech transfer offices. Examples include project-based classes that bring together teams of MBA students to work on roadmaps for university technology transfer, mentoring programs, incubators and accelerators, and entrepreneurship education for students and faculty. While these practices alone do not guarantee successful spinoffs for universities, researchers say they provide rich ground for students and faculty to experiment in a safe environment before launching new ventures and provide a means to build new skills.

In conclusion, researchers identified three widely applicable guidelines for technology transfer and spinoff development at universities: 1) align the objectives of the university, tech transfer office, faculty and graduate students, 2) leverage all potential university resources, and 3) encourage graduate students to see technology commercialization as a career option.

More details on each of the guidelines are available in Kauffman Foundation report University Technology Transfer Through Entrepreneurship: Faculty and Students in Spinoffs.

Interested in Faculty Entrepreneurship?
Join us in Atlanta and learn more at SSTI's 16th Annual Conference! In one of our dedicated breakout sessions, we will examine the criteria for successful faculty entrepreneurship and explore innovative, "lean" models like the National Science Foundation's I-Corps. Learn more about the session...

higher ed, tech transfer, commercialization, entrepreneurship