Senior researcher Maria Theresa Norn from DTU Entrepreneurship is conducting a study of Open Entrepreneurship’s activities and impact. Open Entrepreneurship is an initiative supported by the Danish Industry Foundation, and its aim is to create new and scalable research-based technology startups. All Danish universities have joined the initiative.
So far, Maria Theresa Norn has looked at the challenges that Open Entrepreneurship needs to address to support the development of startups at universities.
Although many researchers would like to see their research put to use, few wish to become full-time entrepreneurs. And that can be a good thing, Maria Theresa Norn points out.
“We know that most researcher entrepreneurs lack the business skills that are essential for developing and managing strong startups. At the same time, studies show that it’s a huge advantage when researchers behind a new technology are involved in the company that brings the technology to market. It can increase the company’s chances of success, improve its profitability, and increase the speed at which technology is developed.”
The question is how to ensure that researchers with an idea for a company can put their knowledge to use while the company gets access to important business development skills. Open Entrepreneurship is trying to answer this question.
The five nuts
According to Maria Theresa Norn, the research points to five “nuts that need to be cracked” to strengthen the development of scalable research-based startups.
1. Experienced entrepreneurs
Firstly, it’s necessary to bring experienced external entrepreneurs into universities to help researchers develop their ideas, translate them into products and services, and build solid business models and companies up around the ideas. The challenge is that both researchers and universities typically lack networks for external entrepreneurs with relevant experience.
2. Market insight
Secondly, there is a need to bring market insight and business development skills into play much earlier in the development of the researchers’ ideas than is often the case, as this can significantly increase the chances of establishing a successful business.
3. Extended offer
Thirdly, the research points to a need to expand the universities’ offers to budding research entrepreneurs. Typically, researchers only receive advice at their university when a patent application for an invention is submitted. According to Maria Theresa Norn, this means that many researchers don’t receive timely advice on what their research can be used for and what it will take to develop and mature it. In addition, not all university research can be patented or commercialized through patents. Other times, a company must build on competitive advantages achieved through deep know-how, which universities are often not well equipped to advise on.
4. Flexible support
Fourthly, universities must be able to offer flexible support to research entrepreneurs that can be adapted over time. For example, studies have shown that it’s important to bring researchers with good ideas together with various external players. Usually, different business skills are needed at different stages in the development of a company, and in fact it can hamper a university startup if the same experienced external players support the company throughout. Therefore, universities’ advice to researcher entrepreneurs should preferably include helping them find the right advisors, mentors, investors, and co-founders, and to assess when new or other people are needed.
5. Collaboration and learning
Finally, there is a need to improve collaboration and learning between universities. Maria Theresa Norn points out that there are big differences in how universities work to promote the development of research-based startups and how good they are at it. This suggests that there’s great potential for increasing knowledge-sharing and cooperation between universities when it comes to effectively supporting new startups.
In essence, it is about making the transition from research to business as attractive as possible to the parties involved.
Nutcrackers at universities
Open Entrepreneurship is trying to crack all these nuts. For example, business units have been established at each university with people who have entrepreneurial backgrounds and academic insight into the relevant research fields.
The heads of the business units play a key role as catalysts and links between the researchers and entrepreneurs, influencers, and companies. One of the tasks is to put together the right teams to mature promising ideas. Another is to continuously support and advise the new startups in their development, help them apply for development funds, etc.
The Danish universities have a unique ecosystem of budding research-based startups, entrepreneurs, and researchers. It is anchored in the universities’ top management as well as relevant academic environments—so there’s a good basis for improving the commercialization of university research.