What is academic entrepreneurship and why do we do it?

Published On: 17 February 2022|

He fired the first shot in the Innovation Systems and Academic Entrepreneurship workshop that kicked off on Wednesday for academics and staff involved in entrepreneurship development at South Africa’s public universities. Addressing the topic: What is academic entrepreneurship and why do we do it? Dr Tim Hart, Development Director at Oxentia Ltd, said it must all begin with understanding that we do research to advance knowledge for the future benefit of humankind and for our environment. It is also about appreciating the need for innovation, which means the application of knowledge in the creation of new products and services.

He was the first speaker lined up in the training-of-trainers workshop of the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme, hosted in a hybrid format from a facility in Sandton, Johannesburg. The workshop was the main activity in EDHE’s Kick-off event for 2022, that was facilitated by experts from Oxentia Ltd, a division of Oxford University Innovation.

Dr Hart (left) said, contrary to a long-held belief that the responsibility of innovating from research lies with industry or other players out there, the fact is that the responsibility to innovate lies with academic researchers themselves. Understanding that research is, for the most part, funded from the public purse, he added that the least that researchers can do is to ensure that society benefits directly from the knowledge they generate and the innovation that flows thereafter.

“By innovating and commercialising our research, we aim to activate the economy and generate revenue, thus ensuring greater public investment in our future research endeavours to make a difference to the world, and to justify waking up every morning to go to our workplaces and institutions.”

His next two questions were: So, can you teach entrepreneurship? Should we teach/encourage entrepreneurs to become entrepreneurs? Drawing from his 29 years of experience combining academic research, technology transfer and spinning-out and managing two investment-backed life science companies from university research — to cite a few instances — Dr Hart said he had realised, by now, after spending the past 25 years encouraging academics to become entrepreneurs, that he had gotten it all wrong, all along.

It is about inculcating the right skills!

Success, in developing entrepreneurial universities, Dr Hart said, rather lay in getting academics to work with entrepreneurs; creating awareness of the skills sets required in entrepreneurship and supporting academics towards improving research productivity, and impact.  “It is time we transformed our institutions from being talk sites to entrepreneurs, to those working with entrepreneurs.”

He added that the soft skills are all those that cannot, and will not, be replaced by computers.

Dr Hart said institutions would also realise success in entrepreneurship if academics adjusted their communication style from being “the expert in the room” to “listening and hearing” more. This would be to learn about the challenges encountered by entrepreneurs and society – to inform their research better and render it more impactful.

He added that academics must appreciate the importance of adapting their engagement approaches to different stakeholder groups involved, pointing out that entrepreneurs, specifically, tend to iterate themselves towards finding solutions.

He also cautioned about the importance of recognising that different stakeholders could interpret the same problem from different (equally valid) points of view.

Go to Gemba!

He then borrowed from the Japanese word kaizen, meaning “continuing improvement” to demonstrate Toyota’s approach to entrepreneurship. In the Toyota context, kaizen meant engaging workers at the coalface (Gemba, the shop floor) for the purpose of understanding their customer needs, so as to keep improving their product.  Applying kaizen in academia meant consulting every stakeholder in the value chain to understand all facets of an identified problem, so as to devise appropriate research approaches to generate problem-solving knowledge that would lead to impactful innovations. “So, how often do you go to Gemba to understand the fundamentals of the problem?” Dr Hart asked.

This was about acknowledging the challenges that we encounter, more, and researching them with a purpose to innovate and make the world a better place.

He reiterated that research impact was the ultimate prize that universities must aspire towards. Just how to measure impact was another matter, for which a session would be dedicated, on Day Two of this workshop.

The story of Oxford’s academic entrepreneurs

He then relayed the story of Oxford University’s academic entrepreneurship – dating back to the 1920’s, the pioneers involved and how academic entrepreneurship had evolved to date.

Dr Hart labelled the above pioneers mavericks, meaning nonconformist individuals who were prepared to innovate and do things differently to solve societal challenges. He said even though the goal of business is to make a profit, he does place a high premium on academic entrepreneurs who prioritise societal value over profit. Examples of such academics also emerged in Oxford (see below), in the recent past, in response to the World Health Organisation’s call for the CoVID-19 vaccine.

What is the real problem?

Oxentia’s Development Director said institutions of higher learning might do all in their power to equip their graduates with business modelling, financial management, leadership, intellectual property, and communication skills. But the real challenge still lay in access to opportunities, especially equitable access to finance to realise significant breakthrough into big business.

He cited staggering evidence pulled from North American data, below.

Capital flow in the US is concentrated on the east and west coasts, leaving a large gap in the middle, inland states.
Inequity of access is a global problem.

Learning from the Oxford University model

According to the 2021 Annual Review of Oxford University Innovation Ltd, the university company generated a total of £19m from the university’s academic community, of which £9.2m was ploughed back into the university. In the past year, the company yielded 816 intellectual property deals, 4,455 managed patents, 23 spin-out companies, four start-ups and six social enterprises.  In 2021 alone, Oxford University Innovation Ltd generated a record £1.16 bn investment into the institution’s spin-out companies.

Inequity of access is a global problem.

This was no accident – Dr Hart went on to explain.  Oxford, said to have the highest proportion of graduates than any other English county, boasts 1,500 high-tech firms employing more than 43,000 people.  With a population of 682,000 producing gross value add of £23bn per annum, Oxford is counted among three highest revenue generating regions of the United Kingdom. This translates into high tax contributions with significant implications for public sector investment in Oxford University research.

The university’s success lies in having created an academic entrepreneurship ecosystem that started with networking and collaborating with other entities, locally, nationally and globally. To that end, Dr Hart shared the following tips:

  • Adopt the borrowing principle – Identify the traits you do not have and borrow those bits from others
  • Be prepared to share resources across systems – you can work at different scales locally, nationally, and globally
  • Expand on the triple helix model by adopting the Cory Quintuple Helix–by bringing society and international networks and resources into the equation
  • Learn from Oxentia’s key takeaways
    • Prioritise people over profit
    • Create business ventures to generate socio-economic impact from research
    • Transcend skills development by supporting entrepreneurs to overcome inequities in the political environment
    • Open yourself up to other problem-solving perspectives
    • Participate in ecosystem resource sharing to achieve your goals.

Dr Hart’s talk was followed immediately by a presentation of a university-industry partnership case study concerning the North-West University and a local industry player on a mathematics-teaching tech-based solution.  We will share insights from that case study at a later stage.

Day One of this workshop also saw participants receiving more thought leadership from other Oxentia Ltd consultants on The Importance of Innovation EcosystemsChallenges and risks in innovation and Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities Commercialisation.

Nearly 200 individuals representing 25 of South Africa’s 26 public universities were registered to attend this workshop. Half of them attended in person at a facility in Sandton, while the other half linked in via the zoom platform.

‘Mateboho Green is the Manager: Corporate Communication at Universities South Africa.