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Study: Academic start-up model rife with missed opportunities

By David Schwartz
Published: July 14th, 2010

Although it is widely believed that the standard route for academics to start their own business is to disclose an invention to the university, secure a patent, and spin out the technology, more U.S. professors go into business as consultants than as inventors, according to a study by researchers at the University of Bozen, Italy, and Case Western Reserve University published in Research Policy. The findings suggest that governments and universities are missing an opportunity to boost entrepreneurial activity.

In what the authors say is the largest study of its kind, experts on entrepreneurship surveyed 11,572 professors at institutions across the United States. Of the 1,948 respondents who had started a business, only 682, or about one-third, were exploiting patents obtained through formal university IP systems. The remaining 1,266 respondents had started businesses — including consulting, manufacturing, and service-based firms — based on non-patentable knowledge. Social scientists and engineers launched most of the businesses that were not based on patented inventions, but such ventures also were prevalent among biomedical and physical scientists. “There is a lot of stuff that academics are realizing isn’t patentable but they can commercialize for themselves by starting a company,” says Scott Shane, PhD, professor of entrepreneurial studies in the department of economics at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western, who co-authored the study.

Because surveys of entrepreneurial activity, including government assessments, typically focus on patent activity, they may significantly underestimate the efforts of academics, Shane adds. That conclusion supports the findings of another study recently published in Research Policy that suggests commercialization statistics based on TTO data often underestimate the impact of university research. (Click here for previous story.) The new study also suggests that university TTOs fail to help a sizable proportion of academic entrepreneurs. “All the policies and approaches focus on the formal intellectual property system, which means we are missing a big part of the iceberg that is under the water,” Shane says.

Source:  Nature News

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