The tough life of an academic entrepreneur

Academics who apply their knowledge in commercial or policy fields - far away from the ivory tower - should have their work recognised as academic merits, not distractions

Ms Cheli Cresswell's last meeting with her assessors was odd. Her assessors, renowned scholars at the University of Oxford, were eager to discuss with her the scientific papers she ought to write in order to obtain her doctorate. However, Ms Cresswell only wanted to talk about her app idea. It would let citizen scientists map stories about human-elephant interactions from online sources. This visualisation would then aid communities and environmentalists in developing more targeted conservation strategies. She hopes this app will be an integral part of her doctoral thesis. Her assessors did not get it.

Ms Cresswell is a prime example of an academic entrepreneur. More and more policymakers understand that academic entrepreneurs are a university's most valuable asset. Indeed, many British universities now need to measure spin-offs per 100 students and staff. After all, newly founded firms account for nearly all net new job creation, according to studies of the Kauffman Foundation. Academics (directly) contribute little to this job creation on average. According to one estimate from Sweden, less than one in 100 scholars per year quit academia to become full-time entrepreneurs. But up to 16 per cent of academics may run a part-time business which they founded. Several universities are already entrepreneurial. For instance, the Cambridge Science Park, Europe's longest-serving and largest centre for commercial research, at the University of Cambridge counts 1,400 companies and 40,000 jobs. Alumni from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have created 25,800 companies employing 3.3 million people.

These figures indicate that many associate academic entrepreneurship with the natural sciences or computer science. However, we believe that broader conceptualisation and understanding are essential. Indeed, academic entrepreneurship is more than commercial spin-offs, run by patent-holding scientists.

Academic entrepreneurs can be chemists, computer scientists, engineers, economists, geographers, anthropologists or even historians. To us, academic entrepreneurs are those who apply their scholarly knowledge in commercial or non-commercial ventures in order to improve the world we live in. As Confucius said some 2 ½ millennia ago already: "The essence of knowledge is, having it, to apply it."

The academic entrepreneurship we describe is no new phenomenon. A famous example of a distinctive social scientist academic entrepreneur in the United Kingdom is Dr Ralf Dahrendorf (1929-2009). He may be particularly known to those readers affiliated with the London School of Economics (LSE). The German sociologist served, among other things, as director of the LSE, Parliamentary secretary of state in Germany's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a member of the British House of Lords. His thought-provoking op-eds published in the German weekly Die Zeit almost got him fired as a European Commissioner.

Currently, social scientist academic entrepreneurs are mostly economists in the United States. For instance, the Poverty Action Lab, founded by the MIT and Harvard University economists Esther Duflo, Abhijit Banerjee and Sendhil Mullainathan, has revolutionised not only development economics, but also the development aid allocation of many donors. The Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs has authored three New York Times bestsellers and has been named twice among the 100 most influential world leaders by Time Magazine. He even meddles with the Greek crisis.

These academic entrepreneurs are remarkable because they impact policy in spite of the current educational system. After all, most academic entrepreneurs nowadays must live double lives - the life of a successful academic and the life of a flourishing entrepreneur.

Publications in (prestigious) peer-reviewed journals continue to be the key performance indicator within academia. In order to progress on the academic career ladder, scholars must churn out as many peer-reviewed articles in high-impact journals as possible. Sadly, an average academic article is read in its entirety by about 10 people. Equally, 82 per cent of articles published in humanities are not even cited once.

We need to fundamentally change the incentives of the educational system to make way for the academic entrepreneur. If scholars found a successful company, think tank or academic journal, if scholars improve policy as consultants (or even run an entire project funded by an international donor), this should be acknowledged as an important academic and societal contribution by review boards. If scholars publish commentary in the popular media, run a widely read blog or regularly create compelling data visualisations to communicate scientific findings, this must also be considered as an academic merit.

With changed incentives, many academic entrepreneurs (just as Ms Cresswell) need nothing more than access to high-speed Internet (now even available in many Indian villages) and an airport close-by.

A debate is under way these days regarding the relationship of science and society. We strongly believe that the status quo is insufficient and even counterproductive in the long-run. A more diversified approach to assess a scholar's full performance is needed. Universities - allegedly hosting many of the world's most talented thinkers - ought to be bursting with ideas for innovative commercial and non-commercial ventures which, if implemented, would contribute to countries' social and economic development.

Many want academics to be thought leaders and to unleash the creativity of academic entrepreneurs. In private conversations, those leading academic institutions in Europe, Asia and beyond acknowledge that the system needs to change. Similarly, many policymakers argue they would be determined to break the ivory tower. We believe there is nothing wrong with academics living in the ivory tower, but this must not be their only place of residence.

Ms Cresswell's assessors at the University of Oxford eventually also accepted that she would continue developing her app. Change is indeed happening, but at a snail's pace. This has to be accelerated very significantly.


  • Asit Biswas is distinguished visiting professor at Lee Kuan Yew School for Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

  • Julian Kirchherr is a doctoral researcher at the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 03, 2016, with the headline 'The tough life of an academic entrepreneur'. Print Edition | Subscribe