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First time caller, long time listener :)

I'm an assistant professor in a research group. The professor leading our group (and my long time mentor) told me, roughly one month ago, that he got involved into creating a legal entity together with an old pal of him (not in academia). They plan to be commercially active in our field of study.

I don't find this problematic in itself, but I'm worried about conflicts of interest: he does not plan to make his involvement in this entity public any time soon, and surely not before it is commercially active (they are setting up things right now). Moreover, He already mentioned to me that he plans to use interviews carried out within the scope of our research group activities (which, of course, we carry out on confidentiality premises) to the benefit of this company.

As I was uncomfortable with all of this, I shared my concerns with him. He told me that he doesn't see it as I do, that he'll make his involvement transparent 'when the time is right', and that it's common for people in his position to have their side-business (which is true, but I guess there are specific procedures?).

Finally, he told me that if I show enthusiasm and support for this idea he sees me in a shareholder role in the future. I am of course intrigued but at the same time disturbed by the offer in response to me expressing concerns.

Am I overreacting? What should I do? I confess I feel lost and destabilised. So any advice is welcome.

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  • What actual conflict do you see? Do you think he would change research conclusions to benefit the company? Do you think he would recommend against hiring a candidate that he might want to hire for the company? What conflict? – Buffy May 3 at 15:28
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    I see a conflict in the fact that he'll use data that we collect as part of our research (that is, identifying ourselves as researchers and offering confidentiality before intervews) for his business. Some of the information that are typically shared are quite strategic (e.g. customer names, details that can make a service more competitive, ...), and are shared as our network came to see us as reliable, unbiased parties. I think that this can come back at us (me included) and bite us in the butt. – scannerdarkly May 3 at 15:35
  • Maybe the IRB is the place to address this. Some firewall to assure that information is properly handled. – Buffy May 3 at 15:42
  • A very opiniated comment: Saying to see someone as a shareholder is far away from being a binding contract, therefore you should not rely heavily on his words. – user7427029 May 5 at 23:52
  • @user7427029 oh yeah, that is indeed very clear. But thanks for pointing it out. – scannerdarkly May 6 at 15:47
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You should read your university's conflict of interest policy and outside employment policy. Follow the policy as long as you work for the university.

We don't know the policies, and cannot give more detailed advice.

If the policy is unclear or does not exist, get university leaders to fix it.

Keep in mind that the majority of startup companies are never profitable.

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At least in the United States, universities retain the intellectual property that results from research activity by university faculty. But, most universities also have procedures for commercializing this research through spin-off companies in which the university has a stake.

I don't know what country you are in, but if the legal situation is similar to the one in the United States, then using research results in a side business infringes on the university's intellectual property unless the university's IP office has agreed to its use.

What you should do about this is unclear to me. On the one hand, you have a personal relationship with your mentor, and you have no reason to believe for certain that what he's doing is illegal. At the same time, you are suspecting that not all might be by the rules, and so you may have knowledge of a crime against your university. The suggestion that you might hold equity in the company if you just play along could also be interpreted as "buying your silence" (which, if you happen to work for a public university, could also be "attempted bribery of a public official"). I agree that the situation is certainly awkward.

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  • "then using research results in a side business infringes on the university's intellectual property unless the university's IP office has agreed to its use...", "attempted bribery of a public official..." would it not make this (potentially) a legal matter? Surely, the best advice to give would be to either not get involved at any cost or to speak to a lawyer, urgently (at least, to ensure that, indeed, no crime is being committed). – user9716869 May 3 at 18:16
  • @user9716869 Yes. But at the same time, what are you going to do if your lawyer tells you to stop working with a senior person in your department (and mentor!) and/or tell someone in the administration? There are no good options, thus my last sentence. – Wolfgang Bangerth May 4 at 3:41
  • Thanks. We are in the Netherlands. I'm fairly sure he's allowed to do that (even though i'm also sure he should let people know). I'm very concerned about Research ethics, and what would happen if someone I do an interview with for a case study realises that this startup exists and connects me to it. – scannerdarkly May 4 at 4:17
  • @scannerdarkly Your concerns are understandable. The best I can suggest is to have a frank conversation about your concerns with your mentor/colleague, but I fully understand that you may not be in a position, or not have that relationship, where you can. – Wolfgang Bangerth May 4 at 19:29

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