When Do Scientists Commercialize Their Inventions? Insights From the Theory of Planned Behavior
What would you like to see in the future? Some common answers to this question might include a cure for cancer or other chronic diseases, or technologies that can help feed the world in ways that are environmentally sustainable. Companies are busy at work looking for solutions to important problems like these, and in many cases they need university-based research to make it happen.
At universities, scientific researchers can spend decades studying specialized questions in fields such as chemistry, biology and engineering. They push the limits of human knowledge and forge new paths for the businesses that ultimately commercialize new inventions. But in order for university-based knowledge to make it out of the laboratory, individual scientist-inventors need to take part in the commercialization process.
This commercialization process, which is sometimes called "academic entrepreneurship,” can be hard for scientists. They were trained and socialized as scholars and usually see themselves that way. The business world can appear alien, daunting and unconnected to the research world. Many researchers have looked at how “macro-level” factors — such as a university’s structures, policies and culture — can encourage or discourage academic entrepreneurship. Far fewer have looked at the “micro-level” factors, such as scientists’ own attitudes and perceptions as they relate to entrepreneurial behavior. Our study aims to organize and integrate others’ research into those micro-level factors, point to areas for further research on academic entrepreneurship, and develop some takeaways for the institutions and businesses that depend on the knowledge of scientists to bring great ideas to the market.
Our research looked at recent empirical findings on academic entrepreneurship behavior within the framework of the “Theory of Planned Behavior” (TPB), a widely researched, evidence-based theory from the field of social psychology (Ajzen, 1991). The TPB seeks to predict individual-level behavior by looking at people's attitudes and perceptions related to that behavior as well as the norms they encounter among their peers. TPB has been used to predict the probable outcomes in health behaviors, technology adoption, environmental behavior and other realms. Searching through the databases of dozens of scholarly journals, we found 16 articles that could be linked to TPB and that focused on individual or other micro-level characteristics of university-based scientists being studied as actual or potential academic entrepreneurs. Here are some insights from these researchers:
- Scholars’ attitudes towards entrepreneurial activity strongly influenced whether they engaged in entrepreneurial activity. One study found that many academics viewed entrepreneurship as “selling one’s soul,” “impure” or simply outside the scope of what they do. In other studies, academics worried that entrepreneurial activity could hinder their career progress in the university; some women scholars saw academic entrepreneurship as a process that favored masculinity and masculine traits; and the scientists most likely to act entrepreneurially viewed commercializing their research as a path to helping society.
- Social norms, or attitudes and opinions of colleagues and friends, also influenced scientists’ inclinations to commercialize their research. One study of PhD students found that they were more likely to engage in academic entrepreneurship if their colleagues and friends were supportive. A study of eight spin-offs found that support from senior professors and departments encouraged the scientists to engage in entrepreneurial activity. And if a researcher’s co-author or colleague had connections with industry, the researcher was more likely to be involved in it too.
- A big part of academic entrepreneurship is whether the scientist feels he or she can do what it takes to commercialize their discovery. Self-perception influences whether they can see themselves as a founder or co-founder, as a study of 6,200 UK researchers showed. But many scientists are stymied by perceived barriers; a study of 55 academic entrepreneurs and their support staffs showed that many of them fretted that they didn’t have the right contacts.
- Past experiences with the business world also influenced whether scientists were likely to become part of a startup. One of the greatest reported concerns of experienced entrepreneurs was protecting inexperienced ones from being “burned” by the wrong people. Positive experiences made scientists more likely to intend to start a business.
Here are some takeaways from the research for “practitioners” — university administrators, technology transfer offices, businesses and others — who hope to encourage more scientists and researchers to become more entrepreneurial:
- Universities should make sure their own policies address how scientists and their colleagues really think. Even if universities SAY they encourage academic entrepreneurship, peers’ opinions will matter more. And a bad experience with the school’s technology transfer office or a business contact will have a huge negative impact on scientists. Talk to them and make sure you understand their concerns.
- Organize informal gatherings to discuss the possibilities from commercializing scientific research and get scientists comfortable with it. Consider bringing in representatives from established companies to do a “reverse pitch” that encourages scientists to come up with a solution to a problem and helps them see the possibilities. Then give the scientists time to discuss the ideas among themselves.
- Help scientists visualize how they can contribute to commercializing an innovation in a role that makes them comfortable and plays to their strengths as scientists, such as Chief Scientific Officer. They can be motivated by financial rewards, the desire to solve problems, or the chance to further their careers. Management scholar Alice Lam labeled these motivations "gold," "puzzles," and "ribbons," respectively. Give them a role that appeals to these motivations.
- Encourage them to take risks, without fear of failing, and to share their stories so that they can learn from one another.
We are grateful for help we received in writing this article from Leza Besemann, Carla Pavone, Russ Straate, and Mary Zellmer-Bruhn of the University of Minnesota, as well as seminar participants at Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management. This research has been supported by the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation.
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