Earlier this year the National Centre for Universities & Business published their annual Survey of Academics report, which I wrote about here.

The report revealed the ongoing struggle in encouraging academics to undertake commercial activities, and thus share their considerable knowledge with industry.

A recent study, published by Dr Ross Brown from St Andrew’s University, Scotland, suggests that this may not be a bad thing, and that indeed universities may be ill placed to drive economic growth, with little real evidence to suggest that universities are fertile environments from which startups can emerge.

Engines for growth

“While very much the received wisdom that universities are good for business and good at creating businesses, unfortunately the reality doesn’t quite match these expectations,” Dr Brown says.

“The strongly engrained view of universities as some kind of innovation panacea is deeply flawed.  As occurred in the past when inward investment was seen as a “silver bullet” for promoting economic development, university research commercialisation has been granted an equally exaggerated role in political and policy making circles. Universities are not quasi economic development agencies,” he continues.

The paper reveals that the considerable investment that has gone into helping universities commercialize their research, this investment has failed to generate either growth in spin-outs or licensing arrangements with industry.

Different skillsets

The reason for this is a simple one – academics simply lack the skills required to be entrepreneurs.  Couple this with continuing challenges in convincing small businesses that universities are a partner that has something to offer them and Dr Brown suggests the findings should be no surprise.

The paper goes on to say that startups often have quite rudimentary technical needs that differ considerably from the advanced nature of much of the research conducted in universities.  This can make it challenging to find natural linkages between the two sectors.

One organization that might be showing the way is British accelerator fund Entrepreneur First (EF).  They take a different approach to most accelerators in that they are backing talented people rather than ideas.  Their talent scouts scour academia for the brightest minds, who are then recruited to the EF program, partnered up with fellow academics by the team building team at EF, and then the teams are given support in turning their ideas into functioning and profitable businesses.

The initial results are very promising, and the recent EF pitch day highlighted the range of ventures possible by following such an approach.  It certainly belies the notion that all academics lack entrepreneurial verve and suggests that a degree of support can go a long way.

Nonetheless, St Andrew’s Dr Brown remains upbeat about the value universities play in our economies, even if they aren’t churning out ‘unicorn’ after ‘unicorn’.

“Universities are vital for generating human capital, attracting external research income from UK and EU funding councils and for acting as magnets for top-rated academic researchers.  They also play a role in creating the environment conducive to stronger entrepreneurial environments, especially in cities such as Edinburgh and Glasgow.

“Going forward however, policy makers might wish to get other actors especially within the small business community more centrally involved in shaping how best to tackle the deep-seated problem of low levels of corporate R&D in Scotland. Arguably, support organisations such as Scottish Enterprise and Interface should work to connect SMEs to all sources of innovation not just universities.  Given their strong vocational focus, FE colleges may also potentially have a key role to play,” he concludes.



About The Author