21

Why don't more professors attempt to use the knowledge gained during the course of their research work by starting a company and commercializing their findings?

I'm asking this question per this comment.

  • goodreads.com/quotes/show/29232 “Those who can't do, teach. Those who can't teach, teach gym.” ― Woody Allen - Is there any truth to the "reverse" of this saying: Those who teach, can't "do"? – WernerCD May 31 '12 at 13:47
  • 1
    In Italy, if you're employed as a full-time university professor, you are legally not allowed to start a private business company. There are some exemptions for university spin-offs, but basically the law is that you should be teaching and doing university work full-time if you have a 100% salary. – Federico Poloni Jan 30 '14 at 21:58
  • They do, I can name five professors off the top of my head that have co-founded companies! – Irwin Jan 31 '14 at 22:36
40

This question seems to be based on a misconception, namely that professors start companies substantially less frequently than they could or should.

The vast majority of professors, even in fairly applied areas like computer science (compared with literature, say), are simply not in a position to start companies based on their research. You need a viable business plan, and they don't grow on trees. Specifically, even really profound research with many practical applications usually just doesn't have obvious commercial potential as a stand-alone business, since it won't be clear how to monetize it. Of course, there are exceptions, and plenty of important businesses were started by faculty, but only a small fraction of professors could do this successfully.

Here's another way of looking at it. There's no reason why a business based on a professor's research needs to be founded by the professor. If you see someone with great ideas, you can buy the rights to the ideas and found your own company. If professors were missing a lot of wonderful opportunities to found companies, then you'd expect entrepreneurs to step in and do it, but that doesn't happen very often either.

Ultimately, this is why we have academic research. The stuff that leads to obvious business plans could easily be funded by industry. By contrast, one of the reasons why academia includes research is to make sure work that can't easily be sold doesn't get neglected.

|improve this answer|||||
  • 7
    I didn't want to submit this as a separate answer, but I think that XKCD explains it well xkcd.com/664 – Dejan Jun 5 '12 at 13:15
37

Because we're having too much fun doing research to waste our time making mere money.


Lots of professors do start companies based on their research. Especially in engineering, entrepreneurship is one of the signs of a healthy department. But starting and running a company is a tremendous amount of work, requiring a very different set of skills than being a successful academic researcher. Brilliant and novel ideas, even the tiny minority that are marketable in principle, are neither necessary nor sufficient to maintain a successful business. Business plans are just the beginning.

Also, the metrics for success are very different. Put baldly, academic research is successful if and only if your peers like it; a business is successful if and only if it makes money. Academics tend to be more narcissistic than greedy. As evidence: most faculty in science and engineering could easily double their annual salaries simply by leaving academia for industry. If money were our primary motivation, we wouldn't be academics in the first place.

There's also a closely related issue of openness. Academic research is (in principle) entirely public; academic researchers publish their ideas for other people to use, adapt, modify, and apply in ways that are completely out of their control. Businesses, on the other hand, keep tighter control of their best ideas, either hiding them behind non-disclosure agreements or locking their use behind patents, lest some competitor use them to gain an advantage. If you're an academic researcher, someone else using your ideas (usually) helps you; if you're a business, someone else using your ideas (usually) hurts you. For academic researchers used to the unfettered exchange of ideas, the secrecy required for a successful business can be incredibly stifling, if not offensive.

Or maybe that's just me.

|improve this answer|||||
  • 6
    While this tongue-in-cheek answer is definitely correct, could you expand on it for those who aren't familiar with the research mindset? – eykanal May 29 '12 at 20:33
18

I did that in the past (now it's my brother turn ;)), and trust me, you don't start a company for the money, you do it because you think it will be fun, and that maybe you will provide something that will change the world (or at least something). Sometimes it's work, sometimes not. In fact, most of the time you will work a tremendous number of hours, for a salary (if you are lucky) that will be just the average salary of an average guy. And at the end you can end up totally broke.

Almost 10 years after this experience, I don't regret it, but this is a completely different work than research, and for me this is less fun than research. However, being in the shareholders of a company, and just be there for giving advice is both interesting and fun, because all the "boring" work is done by others.

|improve this answer|||||
12

There's more to life than making money... teaching students, grading exams, obtaining funding, being away from your family to present papers at conferences, correcting appallingly written research papers, reviewing similarly appalling papers, trying to get promoted.... It's a laugh a minute and we wouldn't change it for the world.

And it puts bread on the table.

|improve this answer|||||
2

One thing that I haven't seen mentioned yet is intellectual property rights. As an academic, you generally share intellectual property rights with the institution you are affiliated with, at least insofar as royalties must be shared. See How do academics make money from applying their research? for a related question with some more information on this and related subjects.

|improve this answer|||||
1

For any given concept or niche, there is often a huge gap between the time when it's interesting to research that topic, and when it's mature enough to commercialize.

No matter if we're talking about new hardware, new chemical processes or new AI algorithms, there tends to be a decade or two between the point where there are major unresearched and novel parts of the problem, and where it's profitable to scale it as a business; and the problems you need to solve in order to demonstrate a proof of concept are very different from the type of problems you need to solve to make it cheap, predictable and attractive to consumers.

Most researchers are (and should be) working on areas that are far too bleeding edge to be commercialized yet. Most new product development is working on technologies that are already too mature and 'boring' to generate significant publishable research.

In essence, if you see a new 'bleeding edge technology' product in any area, there probably is a 10-20 year old academic paper describing the concept with an implementation that sort-of works if the stars are right, takes impractical effort to make, and practical use requires complementary things that aren't available yet. After some time... the prerequisites have commoditized, someone else has driven the costs down, and you can implement a lot of time in polishing the concept in order to build and sell it - but most researchers would rather research new things than polish the 'old' ones for consumption.

|improve this answer|||||

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.