Why Is It So Hard for Scholars to Launch Startups?
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Why Is It So Hard for Scholars to Launch Startups?

It’s important to decide both what to count and how to count it. Experts and scholar-entrepreneurs agree that not all innovative ventures should be seen as equivalent—or given equal credit—in the eyes of a university. “I don't think that everything that is innovative is morally neutral,” says Harvard Law's Okediji. “The place to begin is with the standards that you use to evaluate, to decide whether this company has advanced the public good or not.”

Universities should offer proactive guidance for the entrepreneurial application areas, scale, and milestones that would be institutionally meaningful. Furthermore, credit might depend on the specific role played. “Being involved in fundraising pitches or operational issues—that may be very important to the future of a startup, but it really isn't the type of activity one would expect from a faculty member on the tenure track” in sciences, says Stephen Sencer, an attorney at law firm Ropes & Gray, who previously served as senior vice president and general counsel at Emory University. “In contrast, there are many scientific roles with startup companies that are directly applicable,” he says. When it comes to assessing success, Sencer advises against valuing only commercial success, citing the role of luck and other factors, as well as the misalignment between financial incentives and the qualities that predict a valuable faculty member. In addition, not all entrepreneurs, particularly those in non-STEM fields, even start companies or follow the most common entrepreneurial models. Allowing flexibility for other forms of activity is critical to avoid imposing a single model of innovation, says Andrew Nelson, a professor at the University of Oregon.

Finally, tenure decisions are time-bound, while entrepreneurial success may not appear within the same window. “Sometimes it takes a long time for us to appreciate what that technology did,” says Okediji, adding that this goes in both directions: Some things that were once celebrated (e.g., diesel auto engines, which revolutionized transportation) are now considered harmful.

Whatever the setup, guardrails are needed. Universities already closely manage financial and ethical concerns regarding conflicts of interest, conflicts of commitment (i.e., use of time), use of university resources, student involvement, intellectual property, and ownership. Some of these issues, likely to intensify under an entrepreneurship track, can be addressed through carefully and fairly designed salary packages or arrangements that allow scholar-entrepreneurs to reimburse some portion of public funding before taking a profit, depending on individual activity breakdowns.

We should also strive to avoid exacerbating existing inequalities. “You want to maintain the university as an egalitarian space. So if one person's technology brings them $200 million, they can buy out their courses with more frequency than other people. They can hire more research assistants than other people,” says Okediji, adding that such situations already arise with other sources of funding, such as internal grants.

Structured flexibility to redefine academic contributions would allow universities to meet their obligations while offering legitimacy that may attract talented scholars who would otherwise give up on academic careers. It might also embolden existing scholar-entrepreneurs to make bolder bets.

Entrepreneurship is inherently risky, and recognition by peers and institutions is just another challenge that scholar-entrepreneurs face. Lifting this barrier could be groundbreaking; the world has too many problems for us to not unleash a ready and willing supply of brainpower in search of solutions. It would be a shame to leave those Rembrandts sitting in the attic.

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