Empowering Young Scientists: Rethinking ‘Academic’ Entrepreneurship

Academic entrepreneurship is too focused on professors, perhaps it’s time to acknowledge, empower, and give visibility to younger scientists.

Academia is a system that overweights the contributions of senior scientists, perhaps just because their permanence time is longer. To nurture a healthy entrepreneurial ‘deep-tech’ ecosystem, it may be time to give visibility, rewards, (a safety net?) to those PhDs and Postdocs who actually take the risk, build the products, and the companies.

Professors can have a crucial role by nurturing and supporting this career path, but from the sidelines.

How many professors have quit (or even just consider it) their position to join a spin-off they co-founded?

Creating spin outs can increase the visibility and impact of the original line of research of a group. It can create jobs for highly trained people in the disciplines that the local ecosystem is training. And as a company creates value, it increases the overall wealth of the people involved. However, many great ideas are never pursued because there is no one to bring them forward. Professors and academic scientists may not be the risk-taking type of people that are needed for new ventures. I would dare to say that it’s actually the opposite: risk aversion is the overarching characteristic across academic scientists.

But professors are good at building a self-congratulatory system. They give each other awards, grants, and tenured positions. That’s a system hard to change.

Spin outs follow a very different path, without ‘peer’ involvement. Customers are not peers, investors are not peers.

Creating safety nets for young scientists

If you ask me what would be the best way to increase the chances of translating science into technology, I would say: create a safety net that allows PhD’s and postdocs to focus on venture creation for 6 months to a year.

A safety net means paying people’s salaries, ensuring they won’t be unemployed the second their contracts ends. The biggest problem I’ve observed in scientists willing to start a company is time. PhD’s are not particularly well paid, which means personal runways are often too short. Plus, let’s be honest, who would sacrifice their own savings knowing the university will take a 40% stake, and the professor will be an equal shareholder to the person who made the sacrifice?

In order to give people time, there should be a quick review mechanism that ensures short application cycles, and with quick commencement dates. What PhD has time to sit down to write a proposal while they struggle to write up their thesis? Moreover, a stringent condition has to be to work in a different environment than their lab, an incubator-type of environment, where the entrepreneurial skills can be further developed.

I have seen some programs like this in countries such as Germany and France, but none in The Netherlands. It would be interesting to see what impact those programs had.

In the meantime, let’s give those PhD’s and Postdocs who decided to move companies forward the spotlight.

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