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University-Industry Engagement Advisor

When worlds collide: Help ensure a tight fit between start-up CEOs and faculty founders


By Jesse Schwartz
Published: March 20th, 2019

Given the dearth of entrepreneurial talent in many locations outside of major tech ecosystems, finding an experienced veteran who is capable and willing to take a technology-based start-up forward is a difficult task. Indeed, the folks in charge of new ventures at universities are typically thrilled to land a candidate with the requisite business skills, technical expertise, and network to attract investors and ultimately make a splash in the marketplace.

However, such lofty ambitions can be thwarted in a hurry if the entrepreneurial candidate tapped to run a start-up finds himself or herself in constant conflict with the scientific founder or chief technology officer (CTO) of the venture. The two leaders may have different visions or expectations for the company, or they may butt heads over key personnel or operational decisions. Whatever the underlying issue, such conflict poses a significant risk for the new company, and most veterans in the university start-up space can tell you all kinds of stories about CEO-faculty CTO partnerships that soured almost from the start.

What can be done to address the issue? While TTO or venture creation personnel may feel powerless to intervene when such a partnership is clearly on the ropes, people with ample experience in the world of university start-ups say there are some things you can do earlier on in the process to defuse festering tensions or, even earlier, to lay the groundwork for a more harmonious leadership match.

Given the time commitment required to start a successful technology-based company, most TTOs want to have a CEO brought in to manage that process, but it can be a hard sell to academic superstars.

“A lot of these people are really, really brilliant. They were told since they were little children that they were brilliant, and they were really great in school,” explains Jon Shapiro, the founder and CEO of Shapiro Advisors, a business consulting firm, and former director of the Venture Development Center at the University of Texas. “They’ve achieved great success as academics and are published, and therefore in that world they are highly successful.”

However, the skills they’ve nurtured to perfection in academia aren’t so important in the business world where salesmanship, communication, leadership, enthusiasm and the ability to work in a team environment are critical. “They freak out sometimes because what has worked their entire life doesn’t work here,” observes Shapiro.

To avoid getting to this point, Shapiro first works hard to get to know faculty inventors. He brings a lot of real-world experience to the table, having run several companies himself. “I explain to them that if they are going to have a successful company, they are not going to run it; they are going to participate in it,” he says.

Shapiro makes the case that it took several years for the faculty-inventor to become an expert in his or her field, and that it takes an equal amount of time to become a good CEO. “You are not going to pick this up in one year. You are not going to be able to deal with it,” he explains. In some cases, to prove his point Shapiro will even ask faculty-inventors to take a workplace assessment to help them realize that they are probably not ideally equipped to become a CEO.

A detailed article on preventing and dealing with CEO-faculty founder conflicts appears in the March issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. To subscribe and access the full article, along with the publication’s 12-year archive of best practices and success strategies for TTOs, CLICK HERE.

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