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What’s really driving academic entrepreneurship

The last two decades have seen a rapid rise in innovation-driven entrepreneurship ventures born in academia. And while the path from classroom to commercialization is a long and winding road, a common-held belief in academic entrepreneurial circles is the assumption that faculty advisors are most often the primary traveler on the road to entrepreneurial success. New research suggests, however, that student innovators—who have more time and flexibility than faculty— drive the momentum of successful entrepreneurial ventures outside of school. (Learn more about the drivers of innovation-driven entrepreneurship in this innovation@work webinar with MIT Sloan Professor Bill Aulet.)

At the same time, studies show that these student innovators are heavily influenced by their faculty advisors, and the success of the academic entrepreneurial venture is largely determined by the students relationship dynamic with their faculty mentors. Lastly, studies also show that the relationships students form in competition greatly influence the success of their venture outside of academia.

Recent studies show growing evidence for students as the driving factor behind academic entrepreneurial spirit.  Because of the nature of these close relationships, there will always be evidence for the entrepreneurial involvement of faculty in creating many ventures, but being entrepreneurial is not the same as being the driving force responsible each day for moving a venture forward. This requires a full-time commitment, something that students’ flexible schedule and lifestyle are more conducive to. Students have more time, flexibility, and often times the passion needed to drive the project forward faster than faculty members who are constrained by limitations of their role, such as their own working research, leadership assignments within the school, and departmental commitments.

However, faculty advisors and mentors do play a key role in shaping the actions of their student entrepreneurs. Pierre Azoulay, Associate Professor of Technological Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Strategic Management at MIT Sloan, has studied the recent impact of academic entrepreneurship and the relationships that give birth to successful ventures outside of academia. His research reveals that “the social influence of advisers on trainees is real; it is not endogenous to trainee-adviser matching dynamics. Moreover, the social influence effect is statistically large.”  For example, Azoulay found that “female scientists in academia are much less likely than men to patent. However, if a female postdoc by chance matches with a patenting adviser, the adviser’s estimated influence on her probability of later-career patenting almost fully offsets the very large, negative effect of gender.”

Competition Also Drives Academic Entrepreneurship

Lastly, competition breeds success. There is something magical about the competitive environment of the academic entrepreneur that can give a venture the momentum and additional fuel it needs to survive the exploration phase. Research shows that the relationships formed in key competitions within the academic environment have a measurable impact on the future success of the venture, as a competition is a microcosm of the kind of high pressure environment the academic entrepreneurial venture will encounter in the business world, offering increased opportunities to acquire mentorship and build relationships that will offer key insight into product development and testing in the exploration phase.

Pierre Azoulay, Sloan Distinguished Associate Professor of Technological Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Strategic Management at MIT Sloan, currently teaches in Developing and Managing a Successful Technology and Product Strategy and Systematic Innovation of Products Processes and Services at MIT Sloan Executive Education.