More school not the answer to academic entrepreneurship
Many of those lamenting the lack of innovation in Canada point to the disparity between academic research and innovative entrepreneurship. Despite our great success at publicly-funded research, we don’t produce related spin-off industries. The recent Science Day in Canada summary echoes the solution suggested by others: “Our institutions must train researchers to be entrepreneurs, not employees”.
It sounds great on paper, but the way forward isn’t clear. Encouraging graduate students to take a few courses in business as part of their training is likely to yield little actual success. Programs like NSERC’s Collaborative Research and Training Experience (CREATE) program sound good on paper – get teams of researchers to put together programs that combine research training with marketplace preparation – but as Maryse points out in an insightful analysis at her blog Frogheart, “how does a graduate student learn to be entrepreneurial from a senior researcher who’s a tenured professor in an academic environment? Where did the senior researcher get their experience?”
Furthermore, entrepreneurial spirit isn’t something you can easily teach. It takes immense personal drive and a commitment to seeing an idea through, to working long hours against long odds, and to overcoming frustrating roadblocks with innovative thinking (never mind the ability to live on meagre income….). Encouragingly, these are the same skills successful graduate students earn during their research training.
Maybe more importantly, academic researchers and entrepreneurs share the same basic motivation -the joys of autonomy and independence and the reward of personal goals achieved. Graduate students and academics are a great potential pool of entrepreneurs, they just need to be shown the way.
This challenge isn’t unique to academics. First-time entrepreneurs from all backgrounds lack knowledge and face challenges, so how to figure it out?
This challenge has led to the creation of dynamic communities of entrepreneurs across the country whose networks are both great learning spaces and sources for corporate collaboration. These communities of entrepreneurs are unstructured and grassroots, but enthusiastic and active, with regular events to facilitate meeting people and online forums/blogs/etc to encourage discussion. I’ve spent some time in these communities, and think they’re perfectly suited to young researchers without much business experience who are thinking about commercializing their products.
Right now, these networks are made up almost entirely of tech and software entrepreneurs. Twenty years ago, these innovators would have been working on R&D or support for big tech companies – the path to entrepreneurship was unclear. Researchers in most academic fields find themselves in a similar position today, and there’s no reason that in twenty years we can’t have thriving communities of entrepreneurs in other industries.
Young, energetic researchers can find advice, connections, and possible collaborations with entrepreneurs in their own neighbourhoods. These communities already exist, and are – in my experience – eager in their acceptance of new people with bright ideas. By attending social events, joining online groups, reading relevant blogs, chemists, biologists, and engineers have access to expertise and a supportive local network of entrepreneurs.
Any researchers interested in running their own business, but without an idea of the way forward, would do well to communicate with their local community and get involved. It’s likely to be a lot more relevant and inspiring than taking some extra non-credit business courses.