Research is not the only path to academic success

Published: 06 Apr 2017 By John Elmes

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“There’s been [a belief] in some [universities] that entrepreneurship is seen as a slightly dirty thing; it’s almost a euphemism for unemployment.”

This is the view of Matt Clifford, co-founder of Entrepreneur First, when asked why institutions have failed to cultivate an environment in which entrepreneurs can thrive. Mr Clifford, whose seed-funding company helps “top technical individuals to meet and build world-changing start-ups”, said that he didn’t want to “throw too much blame at their doors”, saying that universities are victims of a phenomenon where the only companies that you see presenting at careers fairs are banks, accountancy companies and law firms.

“You see very few technology companies and even fewer tech start-ups [at such fairs],” he told Times Higher Education. “If we want the UK to be a globally competitive start-up ecosystem, we really have to look to Silicon Valley [where]…the default option for the most ambitious computer scientists and engineers is to start or join a high-growth technology company. Until you replicate that cultural phenomenon here, you wouldn’t build an ecosystem of that strength.”

A mentality change was needed, he added, so that “the top computer scientists at [the University of] Cambridge or information engineers at Imperial [College London] say, ‘Actually I’m not going to work at Goldman Sachs, I’m going to start a company’”.

Mr Clifford said that with the number of PhD students outweighing the number of PhD-level academic positions, it’s creating a gap that he thinks can be filled by entrepreneurship.

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“Speaking to our academic advisory boards, one phenomenon they highlight is that some of their very best PhD students get to the end of that experience and say: ‘Maybe becoming a junior lecturer somewhere or a postdoctoral researcher isn’t right for me. There are places where I can apply my research directly from the start.’”

‘Chased around conferences’

Andrew Davison, head of the Dyson Robotics Laboratory at Imperial College London and one of Entrepreneur First’s science partners, said that PhD graduates in his field are “worth a hell of a lot for industry” and institutions risk losing them if they don’t “encourage entrepreneurship within the framework of a university”.

“They’re being chased around conferences by big technology companies with offers you wouldn’t believe,” he said.

“People like that will [always] be attracted to academic research, but the idea that, on the side, or as a major part of your work, you could be involved with entrepreneurial things, which [your institution] supports and understands, would be great.” He said that this mentality is “probably relatively unusual at the moment” in the sector and that it would be interesting for universities to view entrepreneurialism as a potential mark of career progression.

“It’s not acknowledged enough in academia that many successful, internationally leading academics are often involved with start-ups and their students are probably doing all sorts of exciting things. I think support and recognition of that is very important,” he said.

“It’s one of several possible tracks through an academic career. Some people focus on teaching, some are all about pure academic research, some are into management. Then there’s this other route of keeping up strong research but having a portfolio of industrial and entrepreneurial things.”

Mr Clifford said that universities’ view of entrepreneurship was often too focused on “exploiting specific intellectual property”.

“One distinction that has perhaps been insufficiently appreciated in the UK but [is] absolutely core to the model at Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is that you shouldn’t just be concerned with intellectual property in the form of patents or secure assets,” he said. “We should also be interested in talent. There’s some extraordinary stat that companies started by MIT alumni now generate over $1 trillion a year of revenue or something crazy. That’s not [necessarily because] MIT’s IP is so important as to generate that. I think we have too IP-centric a view in the UK of what entrepreneurship means in a university context.”

Although Mr Clifford said that he would want universities to offer students and staff formal routes to maximise entrepreneurialism, he worried that when this has been tried previously, “what you end up doing is grafting existing business school courses on to [say] engineering curricula”.

“If there’s one truism about technology start-ups, it’s that they’re not small versions of big businesses: they require a totally different approach,” he said.

“It’s very tough to teach entrepreneurship within traditional academia. Typically, where it has worked, excellent entrepreneurs, not academics, come in and teach non-traditional curricula around what start-ups are like.”

Originally published on Times Higher Education, October 1, 2015

Pic source: Reuters

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