Incubating on-campus success

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It's a difficult task to consider student entrepreneurship without thinking about a school's role in helping to develop and drive student ventures. Recently I've become particularly interested in how university commercialization offices, or tech transfer departments, assist in this.


by Harley Finkelstein

I had the opportunity to meet the principals of a number of prominent tech transfer offices in an effort to better understand what actually goes on there. What I encountered was an eye-opener - although many of these departments are staffed with experienced business minds and technical experts, there seems to be a visible divide between what's happening at the grassroots level on campus and actual projects being incubated through these offices.

Need proof? A recent U.S. study by Richard Jenson found that less than half of all ventures coming from student and faculty entrepreneurs are even disclosed to their school's transfer offices, never mind incubated there.

It's important to understand campus commercialization encompasses many aspects of incubation, and my focus is more on student-based ventures as opposed to faculty- or research-based tech transfers. Nonetheless, I've never taken advantage of university-based resources available at the schools at which I've studied. This was for two reasons: first, I didn't feel the red tape typically associated with academic offices fit well with my entrepreneurial drive, but also because any need I had for faculty assistance was satisfied by informal mentoring I received from my professors.

Consider what some U.S. schools are doing within their commercialization programs. They, unlike us, seem less concerned with licensing intellectual property and trying to "predict and pre-approve" the big winners, and instead focus on connecting those walking in their door with those who can best help propel their venture.

This means having VCs, lawyers, accountants, marketers and industry experts on hand, all taking a quasi-advisory role in these offices. Perhaps this is the reason U.S. academic institutions boast that university spinoffs are 114 times more likely to go public than off-campus businesses.

Here's the general dilemma with Canadian on-campus incubation as I see it: the engineering student has the product but may lack the necessary business acumen to bring it to market; the management student is building spreadsheets and profit-and-loss reports but only for the proverbial widget; and the design student may be the next Philippe Starck but has nothing to design other than pedagogical projects.

But what if all three met once a week with an advisory team from the school's commercialization office, and what if these inter-faculty clusters were provided subsidized services from faculty members and professionals?

Luckily with the likes of Joe Irvine and Dinesh Kakadia, from the University of Ottawa and Carleton respectively, who each work in our local commercialization departments, Canadian schools may begin to dispel practices that promote risk aversion and instead may intensify entrepreneurial spirit by encouraging these sorts of collaborations. Across the country, others such as the University of New Brunswick and University of Waterloo are revamping the antiquated campus commercialization model, and this may trickle down around the country.

In speaking with a principal at a prominent national VC firm, I learned that much of the current disconnect comes from cultural bias regarding stereotypes about private business versus academia. The business community may feel that professors, for example, who develop their own intellectual property remain overly protective about their discoveries even though the university, where the research took place, often feels that the output actually belongs to them.

There are also professors externally funded by private corporations, such as company research chairs, which causes increased friction and confusion when assigning ownership. A lack of standardization also intensifies the problem as certain faculties have unrealistic valuations of these projects, while other schools are more focused on getting to market and raising the school's tech transfer brand. Additionally, because most universities are subsidized at least partially by the government, a case could be made that technology developed on campus should be offered at reasonable rates, rather than to the highest bidder as if the school was a private developer.

For now, underlying concerns regarding how to best commercialize on-campus ventures remain, and if Canadian schools and businesses wish to lessen the prevalent "brain drain" we must learn to play nice with one another - faculty, students, and industry.

Harley Finkelstein is an MBA candidate at the University of Ottawa and serial entrepreneur who has founded a number of businesses including Innoventure Capital, a seed financing firm.


Organizations: University of Ottawa, University of New Brunswick and University of Waterloo

Geographic location: U.S., Carleton

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