I was working 3 years on a project, that I came up with on my own, worked on my own, published 2 papers on it. I want to drop out of Phd (or take leave) and do start up at this point using my code.

Can I do it? Or because I developed this code while doing my Phd it cannot be used for commercial purposes?

EDIT: I am in US, top university for CS.

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    This is largely dependent on your location, as well as university guidelines. Some places strictly forbid it, some places encourage it. Where are you in the world?
    – nabla
    May 7, 2018 at 20:28
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    Intellectual property rights for students working on unfunded or funded research projects are handled very differently at different institutions within the US and I'm sure there's even greater variation internationally. You should check your university regulations and any intellectual property agreements that you entered into. May 7, 2018 at 20:33
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    As useful as academia.SE is for certain types of questions, I definitely would not trust it as a source of legal advice for a potential start-up business. If you are serious about such a venture, you should get a copy of your university's IP policy, your PhD candidature agreement and rules, and contact a professional IP lawyer for paid legal advice.
    – Ben
    May 8, 2018 at 6:43
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    (not working at a US university myself) we were discussing open-sourcing our software with our colleagues at US universities. they seem to have strong restrictions from their university lawyers (whom you might want to contact in that matter), in that [my simplified view] code development US-publicly funded must be usable by US companies - i.e. exactly what you want to do. Therefore we cannot publish under GPL but are asked to publish all our code under Apache, which is (AFAIU) designed to be usable by companies, w/o harm to possible patents or restrictions to in-house improvements…
    – pseyfert
    May 9, 2018 at 9:32
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    Only you can answer this. How do you not know the contents of your own contract? May 9, 2018 at 11:44

3 Answers 3


I'm not aware of any blanket prohibition, anywhere, that say that you can't use code developed during a PhD for a commercial venture - but most Universities in the US will have some kind of intellectual property agreement in place to state what the process is for doing this.

You will need to check with officials at your University to see what agreements you are subject to - but you should go a step farther than this. Specifically, you should see what departments might exist that can actually help you.

In the US at least - and I'm sure many other institutions around the world - there are departments specializing in intellectual property, "knowledge transfer", corporate spin-offs, start-ups, entrepreneurship, etc. These can be a rich source of support and networking, if they are available to you, even if you have intellectual property agreements that assign various rights to the University.

Universities want to earn money for these projects, as I'm sure you do as well, and 100% of $0 is $0. Universities often heavily facilitate the process of converting this work into money, and it is not abnormal for even a place that has heavily restricted intellectual rights assignments agreements to assign use rights and royalty agreements that have zero cost for the first $200,000+ US dollars in income. There are often even startup grants available, accelerators (even if they are not called that - places that provide space and equipment to help starting businesses), introductions to investors, showcases, and more. You won't know until you ask and look for them, as where they are located tends to vary heavily by institution.

For the exact nature of the agreements that apply to you, we can't say; I've seen everything from "the student owns their own work" to "anyone funded assigns all rights and ownership to the University", and I'm sure there are agreements everywhere in between. You are right to check them out in advance of a major decision, but this is so specific that you'll need to talk with multiple people are your specific institution to see what applies to you. You may also need to speak with an outside legal professional (lawyer experienced in this area, etc) to verify, but your local administrators are your best first point of contact to see how things work.

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    This is not just a US thing; similar units operate in UK universities and probably elsewhere. The idea to get help from the university is an excellent one. May 8, 2018 at 9:19
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    Locale matters a metric ton here. In Sweden, there is a principle called "teacher's exemption" that governs that universities cannot claim any IPR on their teacher's (and student's) inventions. However, even in that case a PhD student still needs to make sure that IPR between them and their advisor(s) is cleared. Just because you programmed everything yourself does not necessarily mean everything belongs to you and you only, especially if you wrote some papers where your advisor was a co-author.
    – xLeitix
    May 8, 2018 at 15:19
  • US schools with top CS programs will have their lawyers all over this. Among other things, when I became a grad student at such a school and signed up for my school Internet accounts, it said the school would have a stake in any IP or business developed using its resources. (The way I read it, that would include using its hosted email and Internet connection, though criteria that extreme might be hard to enforce.) May 14, 2018 at 3:29

You should ask officially, as others (notably BrianH) answered. At some places and countries, your university -or research organization funding your PhD work- will even help you (perhaps with a paid leave and/or some business incubator). At other places, it will forbid that and you could be sued. Perhaps your advisor might be helpful (so consider speaking with him about that startup idea, if you are on good terms).

In France, where I live, getting help on a startup with a PhD idea is probably easy (thru clusters like Systematic, BPI France, etc...). The official stance is that France is wanting more of that (and provide dedicated funds to help that), and it is likely to be the same in most European countries.

However, I recommend finishing your PhD (with 3 years of work on it you probably are not very far from that), get the official doctoral degree, and later on work on your startup (with approval, in some official setting which might ask you to give some parts of your company to the University or some other licensing terms, and perhaps help, from your University). An abandoned PhD work is a failure.

Even if your startup works, having the PhD (really) shows that you are able to end a difficult challenge. And if your startup fails (which is likely, since most of them do) the PhD is a useful blanket (or safety net) to have. 5 to 10 years later from now, having a PhD on your business card could make a lot of difference (and perhaps earlier: I guess that banks will more easily lend you money if your startup has the blessing of your University or research institution, whatever that means).

Conversely, dropping your PhD work right now, so close to finishing it, is probably a very stupid thing (and could send the wrong message to future VCs or potential clients : that you cannot be trusted because you are impulsive). Think a lot before committing that.

BTW having a working code on some research problem is really different from being able to sell it successfully (and requires different skills). And a research prototype software is quite different from a commercial product.

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    Agreed on the "finish the degree" recommendation. A company led by Dr. Franklin N. Furter, PhD, who has spent many years researching topic X, is a lot more impressive in business circles than one led by Frank Furter, the well-known college drop-out and wannabee entrepreneur. May 9, 2018 at 11:31
  • @BobJarvis and yet, the irony is that most of the well known highly successful entrepreneurs were college drop-outs, such as Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark, Lex Luther, Mark Zuckerberg, etc.
    – polfosol
    May 9, 2018 at 11:51
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    @polfosol: But a lot more of the failed entrepreneurs have probably also been college drop-outs, and nobody remember them. Most startups fail! May 9, 2018 at 12:41
  • @BasileStarynkevitch Aside from the humor, my point was, it is not so easy to prove that a significant correlation exist between finishing the degree and success in the business.
    – polfosol
    May 9, 2018 at 13:19
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    @polfosol: I never said anything about the business being a success, which is IMO minimally related to degree completion. I said "...a lot more impressive in business circles...". Suits are impressed by degrees. The fact that the guy with the degree may be a full-time resident of the bo-zone is irrelevant. "PhD" may be enough to get you in the door. After that it's a matter of having a good spiel. (Also, I find your correlation of Zuckerberg with a bunch of comic book characters to be...humorous :-). May 9, 2018 at 13:52

I've been through this a few times, but note that I'm not a lawyer. This is just advice to get you started on what you can look further into.

First of all code per se is covered by copyright not patents, and the copyright is probably owned by your employer (in a typical employment agreement). If the govt funds it you may be required to make it available to other researchers. If you never sell or publish the code you're using at your startup, no one generally knows or cares you're using it. Of course I've heard of people trying to sell their company get burned when the lawyers doing due diligence submits the code for copyright check.

The invention described by the code would presumably be patentable (because everything is these days), but whatever you have already published is no longer patentable in many countries. And in the US it will no longer be able to be patented one year after publication. This is all similarly owned by your employer if still patentable. After you publish it of course you and anyone else can do it.

One option is to see if you can get the University to patent it and have your company license it from them. This would actually be a great option as it adds prestige to your company. Plus the university's lawyers handle the legal stuff and protect/enforce the patent. This will also help you get funding. VC's will want to see you have protection for your IP (and conversely they will of course be turned off by potential IP issues).

Another option is to "engineer around" it by changing everything somewhat. Presumably you as the expert on the topic can imagine different ways of doing the same thing.

A final option is to not worry about the university and see if you can get anywhere on your own first. Then if you meet with success, you can now afford to deal with the IP issues. This is more the bootstrap option if you'll be scrounging one customer at a time and no one even knows what you're up to. Frankly the odds are you will find you need to change what you are doing anyway. Every customer tends to need a totally custom product oftentimes.

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