A man in a lightbulb-shaped balloon

Getting involved in the commercialisation of research helps academics focus on “real world” problems 

Many technological innovations in the non-academic world are underpinned by scientific advancements originating at universities. This is a well-established and well-understood relationship.    

Academic entrepreneurship plays a central role in this process, providing a conduit for enterprising researchers to bring their discoveries to market. At leading research-intensive universities like Imperial College London, this is an entrenched part of the culture. Between 2001 and 2011, 6.9 per cent of senior faculty across the university were involved in entrepreneurial activity, as founding directors of companies.  

While we understand quite well how academic entrepreneurship feeds into technological innovation, we know less about the inverse relationship: what effect does academic entrepreneurship have on scientific research?

This is what we, alongside Riccardo Fini of the University of Bologna, set out to answer in our new paper, "Attention to Exploration", published in Organization Science.  

We explored this question by analysing data derived from the population of 9,500 academics who worked at Imperial in the 10-year period from 2001 to 2011. Our focus was on those who remained in their research positions at Imperial (those who went on to pursue entrepreneurial careers in a full-time capacity have fewer incentives to continue working on scientific research). 

Academic entrepreneurship encourages interdisciplinary approaches  

Even for those staying in academia, becoming an entrepreneur may involve certain trade-offs. These might include having less time for research or not being able to give it sufficient attention. Less charitable observers may even question whether academic entrepreneurs’ priorities are scientific or commercial.  

Therefore, some may speculate that academic entrepreneurship could result in lower quality research. Our results, however, proved the contrary: far from diminishing a researcher’s scientific work, engaging in entrepreneurship had a positive impact.  

We found that, when academics get involved in the commercialisation of research, they tend to widen the scope of their academic work, leading them to explore topics they have not researched before. This in turn leads them to produce more scientific discoveries.  

When academics get involved in the commercialisation of research, they tend to widen the scope of their academic work

This is brought about by the requirements of the entrepreneurial process. Becoming an entrepreneur encourages academics to become more interdisciplinary, moving them beyond a tight focus on their subject area.  

Whereas before research questions would be shaped by debates within their own academic disciplines, their attention now turns to issues arising in relation to the commercialisation project. These do not tend to adhere to the boundaries between disciplines we see in the academic world. 

This makes their scientific work more novel and creative, ultimately resulting in higher-impact research. An increased volume of citations among papers published by academic entrepreneurs stands as evidence of this. 

In broad terms, we might call this a shift to tackling wider “real world” problems, rather than narrower, purely academic questions.  

Research shaped by exposure to new areas of expertise 

As part of our research, we conducted a few interviews that lent support to the conclusions from our statistical data analysis. For instance, commercialising research into vaccine development led one medical researcher, with little prior knowledge of vaccines, to discover a specialised pathogenesis system.

Another researcher recounted how their research tool, originally developed for the energy sector, had unexpected applications in the pharma industry. This exposed them to diverse areas of expertise, which in turn shaped their research, steering it towards new topics.  

Other professors we interviewed told us how engaging with their startups helped to expose them to different types of people with whom they had not previously worked, such as industry scientists and commercialisation experts. Once again, this opened the door to new research questions and approaches.

We might call this a shift to tackling wider “real world” problems, rather than narrower, purely academic questions 

Our findings have considerable implications for the community of higher education researchers, 1.4 million of whom work in the OECD alone, backed by $230 billion worth of research funding each year.  

Does this mean we think universities should be pushing all of their researchers to launch startups? This cannot and should not be inferred from our findings, and would not have positive results. Only certain discoveries lend themselves to commercialisation, and only those should be supported by a university.  

What our research does suggest is that once a researcher becomes an entrepreneur through a viable commercialisation project, there may be a positive feedback effect on their science as a result. Therefore, offering some support to those with high-value ideas and entrepreneurial ambitions could well pay dividends for an institution’s research output.   

This article draws on findings from “Attention to Exploration: The Effect of Academic Entrepreneurship on the Production of Scientific Knowledge” by Riccardo Fini (University of Bologna), Markus Perkmann (Imperial College Business School) and Jan-Michael Ross (Imperial College Business School). 

Monthly newsletter

Receive the latest insights from Imperial College Business School
Markus Perkmann

About Markus Perkmann

Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship and Academic Director, Imperial MBA
Markus Perkmann is Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship. He is the academic director of the Imperial MBA and academic director of the Imperial Enterprise Lab. He also curates the Entrepreneurial Journey, our school's experiential startup programme across all on-site MBA programmes.

His research focuses on the business of science, science and technology entrepreneurship and university technology transfer. He is editor of the journal Innovation: Organization & Management, and his research was published in journals including Academy of Management Journal, Organization Science, Research Policy and MIT Sloan Management Review.

Markus has startup experience stemming from working at Greychip, a London-based startup company founded to create an e-learning platform. He holds a PhD in Sociology from Lancaster University.
Jan Ross

About Jan-Michael Ross

Associate Professor
Dr Jan-Michael Ross is Associate Professor of Strategy. His research focuses on the role of uncertainty and environmental changes for competitive dynamics, imitation strategies, and strategic investment decisions.