Kauffman-Funded Paper Offers Guidance for Entrepreneurs and Universities to Improve Commercialization

New technology innovations, and the startup companies formed to commercialize them, increasingly have their beginnings in university research labs.

And it’s more likely that PhD students, not faculty, form the initial idea for a new technology. While in later stages these ventures resemble typical technology startups, they experience a different early development process, decision points and potential conflicts that can make or break an innovation’s chances of making it to market.

From Lab Bench to Innovation: Critical Challenges to Nascent Academic Entrepreneurs,” a new study released today by the Kauffman Foundation, examines the particular experience of nascent academic entrepreneurs (NAEs) and the implications of this experience for universities and policymakers. The study is among the few to focus specifically on this important group of entrepreneurs at the individual, rather than institutional, level.

“This research supports the notion that graduate students have an important role in commercializing their inventions from the university lab and they need support models to help them advance to the commercial marketplace. This is significant because many universities in the U.S. do not clearly define intellectual property rights in support of student entrepreneurs. I’m hoping this paper will encourage universities to consider more open policies,” said Lesa Mitchell, vice president of Innovation and Networks at the Kauffman Foundation. “The paper also reinforces the value of competitions that allow students access to robust resources and experiences that can help them move their science inventions from lab to market.”

Author Roman M. Lubynsky, senior venture advisor, MIT Venture Mentoring Service, followed and analyzed the experiences of 10 NAEs involved in eight ventures at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, all of whom were enrolled in the university’s Venture Mentoring Service.

The cases spanned the product life cycle from idea to commercialization across a range of technologies and industries, with data collected through interviews, observation and archival data.

Lubynsky defines an NAE as a faculty, staff or student researcher at a university who has left the university, or intends to leave, to devote full-time attention to the development of a company based on research that originated at the university in which he or she was involved, and which has not yet achieved real economic activity through sales of the product or services.

Key study findings include:

  • Many academic entrepreneurs are students at the time they formed their initial idea and began exploring the possibility of a startup venture.
  • NAEs typically found academic ventures as “research-based startups” with the goal of completing or developing the new technology to make it ready for commercialization, and spend years – sometimes as much as a decade – in this phase. Their objectives, required resources, structure and funding sources differ at each stage.
  • The decision to launch a venture evolves as the NAE gains confidence in his or her entrepreneurial abilities and determines that the technology likely cannot be licensed unless they bring it to maturity first.
  • Finally, academic entrepreneurs are more likely than typical technology entrepreneurs to experience serious conflicts – particularly with their faculty advisors – over intellectual property and equity participation.

Based on these findings, Lubynsky also provides recommendations for both individual NAEs and university research labs and entrepreneurship programs to better support the unique process and requirements of academic ventures and improve their chances of successfully reaching the marketplace and contributing to the U.S. and global economy.

Download the entire report here.