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Students, Postdocs, Policies Drive University Spinoffs

Columbia University Quad at night (Beraldo Leal/Flickr)A new report from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation says participation of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in forming businesses, coupled with campus policies and support structures, help propel the creation of spinoff companies from universities.

The Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City conducts research and advocacy on entrepreneurship, and provided one of the report’s authors — Director of Research and Policy Robert Strom — co-authored with Wai Fong Boh of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and Uzi De-Haan of Technion–Israel Institute of Technology.

The authors studied campus entrepreneurship at eight universities: Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, University of Arizona, University of California-Berkeley, University of Maryland, University of North Carolina and University of Utah. At each school the authors investigated four to eight cases of technology commercialization, and talked with founders of spinoff companies, technology commercialization officials, entrepreneurship center directors, and students and faculty involved in starting companies.

The report identifies four models of entrepreneurship at these campuses:

– Partnership between faculty and an experienced entrepreneur (23% of cases)

– Partnership between faculty and Ph.D. students or post-doctoral researchers (41%)

– Partnership between faculty, Ph.D. students or post-doctoral researchers, and business school students (13%)

– Partnership between Ph.D. or masters students and business school students (23%)

Participation by students and postdoctoral researchers appears to provide most of the business start-up energy on these campuses. The authors indicate that many faculty members thinking about forming a business based on their research look for an experienced entrepreneur as a partner. However, experienced business people, say the authors, often refrain from joining companies in their early start-up stages.

The authors found the successful generation of spinoff businesses requires university policies that encourage entrepreneurship and provide an assortment of support services for start-ups beyond the school’s technology transfer office. The eight campuses, the authors discovered, offer services such as mentoring programs, business plan competitions, accelerator programs, entrepreneurship training for students and faculty, and project-based classes that bring together interdisciplinary or MBA student teams to work on business plans and create road maps for commercialization.

Strom says this overall university ecosystem supporting business formation “helps to reduce the venture’s market and technological risk by providing programs and resources that give students and faculty freedom, and time, to develop strategic lab-to-market plans.”

The eight institutions take different approaches in putting together these services. The schools vary on offering structured networks for entrepreneurs or letting businesses develop on their own. Campuses may take advantage of outside resources to help their start-up businesses, while in other cases, they rely on internal assets, or combinations of internal and external resources.

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Photo: Beraldo Leal/Flickr

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