It is important to decide both what to count and how to count it. Experts and academic-entrepreneurs agree that not all innovative companies should be considered equivalent – or given the same credit – in the eyes of a university. “I don’t think anything innovative is morally neutral,” says Harvard Law’s Okediji. “It starts with the standards that you use to evaluate and decide whether this business has advanced the public good or not. »
Universities should offer proactive advice on areas of application, scale and entrepreneurial steps that would be institutionally significant. Additionally, credit may depend on the specific role played. “Getting involved in fundraising or operational matters – this can be very important for the future of a startup, but it’s definitely not the type of activity you would expect from a member of tenure-track faculty” in science, says Stephen Sencer. , an attorney with the law firm Ropes & Gray, who previously served as senior vice president and general counsel at Emory University. “In contrast, there are many directly applicable scientific roles within startups,” he says. When it comes to evaluating success, Sencer advises against valuing business success alone, citing the role of luck and other factors, as well as the disconnect between financial incentives and the qualities that predict a valuable member of the faculty. Additionally, not all entrepreneurs, especially those working in non-STEM fields, even start a business or follow the most common entrepreneurial models. Allowing flexibility for other forms of activity is essential to avoid imposing a single model of innovation, says Andrew Nelson, a professor at the University of Oregon.
Finally, occupation decisions are limited in time, while entrepreneurial success may not appear in the same niche. “Sometimes it takes us a long time to appreciate what this technology has done,” says Okediji, adding that it goes both ways: some things that were once celebrated (for example, diesel automobile engines, which revolutionized transport) are now considered dangerous.
Regardless of the configuration, guardrails are necessary. Universities already closely manage financial and ethical concerns regarding conflicts of interest, conflicts of commitment (i.e. use of time), use of university resources, student participation, intellectual property and ownership. Some of these problems, likely to intensify within an entrepreneurship pathway, can be addressed by carefully and fairly designed salary packages or by arrangements allowing academic-entrepreneurs to repay part of the public funding before realize profits, depending on the distribution of their individual activities.
We must also strive to avoid exacerbating existing inequalities. “You want to maintain the university as an egalitarian space. So if someone’s technology makes them $200 million, they can repurchase their courses more frequently than others. They can hire more research assistants than other people,” says Okediji, adding that such situations already happen with other funding sources, such as internal grants.
Structured flexibility to redefine academic contributions would enable universities to meet their obligations while providing legitimacy that could attract talented academics who would otherwise abandon an academic career. It could also encourage existing academic-entrepreneurs to make bolder bets.
Entrepreneurship is inherently risky, and recognition by peers and institutions is just another challenge facing academic-entrepreneurs. Removing this barrier could be revolutionary; the world has too many problems for us not to be able to release a pool of ready, willing brains to search for solutions. It would be a shame to leave these Rembrandts sitting in the attic.