Wednesday, 3 February 2016

20 Ways That Universities Can Encourage Enterprise

I’ve been working with universities for a number of years, watching how they wrestle with the increased pressure to ‘do business’. I’ve seen some first-rate ideas come from academics and go on to succeed as viable businesses and I’ve seen some dreadful ham-fisted attempts to ‘own’ business too.

Here’s my tech entrepreneur’s take on how universities can develop a more enterprising culture:-

  1. Adopt a default position of laissez-faire on all “incidental” staff intellectual property. “Incidental” defined as not directly related to core research or “not what you were paid to discover”. You could make this conditional on said IP being declared to your organisation.
  2. Distinguish between patentable and non-patentable ideas. Universities should certainly protect applicable ideas with patents and license them to the highest bidder but many highly viable business ideas are not protectable and trying to ‘own’ them is often likely to stifle them. Academics write books all the time and universities don’t make claims on their copyright so why should code or business plans be any different?
  3. Keeping non-patentable ideas secret in order to protect them is usually a mistake. The chance of someone stealing a business idea is much lower than you think and sharing ideas with a wider constituency of trusted people is the very best way of getting valuable feedback, advice and introductions.
  4. Clearly state IP and enterprise policy to staff rather than just tucking it away in employment contracts. Express it in a welcoming and supportive way (e.g. “if you’ve had an idea, we’ve got your back”) rather than treating it purely as the “possession” of the institution. An open hand can hold more than a clenched fist.
  5. Do not assume that academic staff and students are incapable of functioning in business. This approach will undermine the inexperienced people and alienate the capable ones, risking the creation of a black market or losing people altogether.
  6. Implement fast decision making on licensing. Some universities can take months to decide what should happen to a business idea — for many startups that’s enough time to build the product and start selling it! Be like Stanford and let experienced KTP staff make the call on it rather than having to run it by academic committees.
  7. Operate a consensual, negotiated approach to equity or royalty shares as opposed to arbitrary or default percentage expectations. Every contributor to a business (staff, students, departments, the university, investors, external business people) should be rewarded fairly according to their contribution over the lifetime of a business. “The idea” is only one component of a successful business and hoarding ideas will yield 100% of nothing.
  8. There are plenty of amazing outcomes for universities beyond just earning money from IP. These include economic and societal impact, learning opportunities for staff and students, closer relationships with host cities, wealth and job creation for the surrounding region, better graduate retention in the region plus the general reputational value to the university. Be like Stanford and seek the best outcome for ideas not just the institution’s pocket.
  9. Become an Easy Access IP partner to allows companies and individuals free access to technologies so new products and services can be developed that will benefit society and the economy.
  10. Publicise university IP and expertise in a searchable format to let the outside world know what you’ve got (hat tip to DMU deputy vice chancellor Professor Andy Collop.)
  11. Business people are not all sharks intent on robbing you blind (any more than academics are all public-spirited saints!) Build close trusting relationships, especially with businesses in your local area and you will generate good karma that will be paid back for years to come.
  12. Consider offering a special deal for businesses utilising university IP or expertise that locate near to your institution and/or employ university staff, students or graduates. Can you offer them free business accommodation, free legal advice or preferential consideration in IP rights deals? Establish a ‘special deal’ or a Bayh-Dole Act for your city.
  13. Allow staff and students sabbaticals to start a business with the right to return guaranteed. This should be no more difficult to administer than maternity/paternity leave or industry placements and is far better than losing them altogether. Returning staff and students will bring back new experiences (whether they succeed or fail) that will enrich the university.
  14. Host events like postgraduate research festivals or enterprise conferences off-campus and nearer the general public and business community to help expose what you can do.
  15. Treat knowledge transfer as a two way street. Universities may be great and inventing new things but most often the best people to execute those ideas are off-campus. Attempts at wholly in-house “spin-offs” do not have a great success rate. Great ideas do not care about the badge of the institutions involved — they just need the right set of people to conceive and execute them.
  16. Get local entrepreneurs involved in university life and build trust with the local business community. This is a far better way of nurturing ideas and businesses and can create the opportunity for the win-win for the whole regional economy.
  17. Don’t assume that big high-profile companies are necessarily the best businesses to have on campus. You could be just conditioning your graduates to work for The Man when many could gain a far broader range of experience by working in smaller businesses and startups (including their own.) Consider the value of nurturing a homegrown Blackboard, Udacity, Dropbox or even a ParticiPoll (shameless plug!)
  18. Successful business communities (especially innovative, creative and technology-orientated ones) tend to be loose networks whereas universities tend to be hierarchies. Don’t assume your rank in your organisation will be meaningful outside of it and don’t make outsiders have to wade through your bureaucracy to get things done.
  19. Encourage or invest in local, off-campus co-working spaces, incubators and accelerators that create the right environments for ideas and skills-sharing between academics, students, local businesses and the wider public.
  20. Recognise that enterprise is a culture not an academic subject. It is much more like research (especially methodology such as lean startup) than teaching and the only way to learn it is by doing it.

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