Essays/professors can enable scipreneurs

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I have reviewed the stories of many spin outs and the relationships between founders, professors, and first employees

This article is marked as draft. It is not in its final form.

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Many professors are slowly starting to wear a secondary hat as startup founders. Perhaps because of the pressure from funding agencies to justify the translation of research to society, perhaps because they understand the value it can bring to their careers.

However, I strongly believe the best path for professors is to become enablers instead of becoming entrepreneurs themselves.

One of the challenges is the ambiguous definition of co-founder. There is no black and white distinction between what are you supposed to do to be known as a founder of a company. Most people agree that co-founders are the people who make up the company since the beginning, sometimes even before there was a clear idea.

Co-Founders don't need to be entrepreneurs

The context of scipreneurs is very specific, and is hard to find a one to one correlation with other entrepreneurial paths.

People working on research come up with ideas constantly. Many are not worth pursuing commercially but few can be.

Once we acknowledge that co-founders don't need to be entrepreneurs, it lowers the threshold for people to engage in these discussions. A co-founder may be someone who enables the creation of a company even if they are not involved in the daily activities.

This view fits with the role of professors, and permanent researchers. They will seldom abandon their positions to join their startup, but they can be a crucial part in their creation.

On the other hand, adding the title of co-founder to an academic CV can help pull some strings. It definitely opens up new avenues for financing, and helps giving visibility to the research topics of the group.

Professors are ideal co-founders

Permanent academic scientists can be excellent startup co-founders. Professors have at their disposal a fantastic platform for launching companies:

  • They have access to money to de-risk innovation.
  • Their networks of colleagues, collaborators, and their 2nd degree network is extensive to different contexts and industries.
  • Their job description gives them flexibility in time allocation.
  • The institutions behind them (research institutes, universities, funding agencies) gives them a lot of credibility.

Many grants, tailored to incentivize valorization of research, can only be applied to by senior researchers. Even if it's a PhD or Postdoc the one who will eventually push projects forward, professors are the only ones with access to this type of initial capital.

One of the struggles for startups is the creation of trust among their potential customers. Previous papers from the group and the existing network of collaborators are two fantastic stepping stones from which to get started. Moreover the professor can become the first user of the company's products, adding even more credibility.


Professors are not good entrepreneurs

However, professors are very conservative and avoid risk-taking. The entire cycle of peer review, grant approval, and paper publishing, forces academics to play it safe. If they are too innovative, gatekeepers at every stage will make sure their ideas don't progress.

Professors see the world from their permanent contract, and they are not used to career changes. Trying a new job is unfathomable to most academics.

And, lastly, most professors lack a crucial trait that makes entrepreneurs entrepreneurial: they are very good at causal reasoning instead of effectual reasoning. They gather the resources needed to pursue an objective, rather than thinking how to reach their goals with what they already have at hand.

There are definitely exceptions, but we must be careful with exposure biases.

If we look at companies with an academic base, we will see that it's extremely rare to find a professor who joins the company full time. It's not just a matter of de-risking enough to make a safe professional transition, in many cases a company will never fulfill the personal ambitions of a professor.

I have discussed with many professors who lament they can't hold more than a tiny percentage of shares in a company because of their contracts. They honestly believe that they need to own a larger piece as an incentive to do something and that's the only roadblock.

I believe that focusing on share ownership is the wrong approach. If they really want to start a company, they are free to quit their job, and own as much shares as they want. That's the reality of everyone in a non academic position.

Professors need to work on their motivations. If they have a fulfilling job, instead of trying to become an entrepreneur, they can help others to pursue that career path.

Professors can focus on being enablers

With all the tools at their disposal, professors can empower other members of their own group to push ideas forward.

Professors have a vast network of young people who are natural risk takers: PhD's and Postdocs live on temporary contracts on the promise a better future down the road. Every contract they have access to is a risky move, and requires lots of personal sacrifices.

Scientist, especially young ones, are used to working on uncertain scenarios. They are probably running experiments without knowing where they would lead, without knowing IF they would lead somewhere at all.

In this context, professors who think valorizing their research is important and a path they want to pursue, can easily rely on their group.

The best thing a professor can do is to give time for whoever will take the project forward. Becoming a scipreneur requires a different focus: no more paper writing, no more exploratory experiments. And professors are empowered to make this concessions with their students. Open discussions among the group and the people involved can go to great lengths to prevent conflicts.

Finally, the last step of enablement is to let go.

Once a company gets its feet on the ground, the role of the professor needs to decrease until it becomes, at most, an advisory position. Supervisors are very influential on their mentees, and is very hard to separate their areas of expertise.

Once a supervisor who is only partially focused on the project, gives advise on 'market size', and 'business strategy', it is time to consciously step aside and let others push forward. I have seen many scientists who are reluctant at letting go, losing control. It's important to show full support of their mentees, and to start trusting their instincts and worldview.

We should find ways to celebrate them

Something that always adds value is celebrating people who took risks and achieved new heights.

Since the idea of the professor/entrepreneur and the professor/co-founder is somewhat ambiguous, we need to find ways of identifying those enablers. The best way is to ask entrepreneurs themselves who do they think gave them the largest push in their careers.


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Aquiles Carattino
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