Use-inspired research will drive academic entrepreneurship

Professor Asit Biswas and Mr Julian Kirchherr have made an intriguing point about the tough life of an academic entrepreneur ("The tough life of an academic entrepreneur"; last Thursday).

They are right that the "publish or perish" culture continues to be strongly entrenched in many universities worldwide.

It is not just the promotion and tenure process that discourages academic entrepreneurship.

Often, professors themselves are not interested. Why is this so?

One reason could be the fear among academics that they are now expected to become entrepreneurs and start running risky business ventures (where they have neither inclination nor competence), on top of research, teaching and other administrative duties.

Understandably, running businesses is probably not what they had wanted to do when they opted for academia, rather than industry.

Another reason could be the belief that working on "commercialisable" research tarnishes the purity of the research endeavour.

Many academics hold the view that the best research is "blue sky" knowledge discovery work without any expectation of exploitation.

Actually, both are mistaken notions. Even among the top entrepreneurial universities, very few academics actually leave to run university spin-off companies.

Indeed, the best contribution a professor can make to a university spin-off company that makes use of his research results is to continue to do good research on the technology to give the company a sustainable competitive edge.

Entrepreneurial professors, thus, often take on part-time roles as chief scientific or technology officers, while remaining in the university.

A notable example is Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Professor Bob Langer, whose world-renowned Langer Lab has given birth to dozens of successful spin-off companies in cancer treatment, blood thinning and so on, attracting hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital.

Is commercialisable research incompatible with good science? Not so. In addition to hundreds of patents, Prof Langer has published more than a thousand papers, many in prestigious journals.

Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science, well known for basic research, receives hundreds of millions of dollars every year in royalties from technology licensing.

While there is a good case for undertaking some blue-sky research, most academic research effort should focus on use-inspired basic research, that is, research that is directed at the fundamental understanding of scientific problems, while, at the same time, seeking eventual benefits to society.

It is, thus, not a choice between good science and commercialisable research, because the best academic entrepreneurship opportunities come from good use-inspired science.

Francis Yeoh (Dr)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 08, 2016, with the headline 'Use-inspired research will drive academic entrepreneurship'. Print Edition | Subscribe