Professors and startups

My primary goal in becoming a professor was to turn my (hoped-for excellent) research and teaching into startups. For that reason I created the Startupinformatik program and set-up my teaching to support it. Sadly, I’ve been noticing over the years that things don’t seem to get easier but harder. Specifically, “the system” (I’ll explain below) seems to view professors with mistrust rather than as the natural allies they should be when it comes to leading students to create a startup.

Let me illustrate this using two experiences:

  • Public funding. Germany supports startups with significant amounts of free money through the EXIST Forschungstransfer program. It pays four people a regular salary for up to two years to get the product out the door. It is a fabulous program. Your company can focus on building the product and isn’t starting out with its back against the wall right away. When my first startup team went to pitch to receive the funds I was told that I should not join. I could be listed as a mentor on the slides, but my actual presence would signal too much that the startup is “professor-driven”. Apparently the presence of a professor implies that the founding team is no good.

    The logic of this eludes me. It is simply a fact that I had significant impact on the formation of the team and business: I brought every person on the team individually and helped it jell, I provided the original product idea and probably still have the best grasp of the market. I will keep consulting to the startup and remain an important conduit to growth resources like new employees (read: my students). Why again is a professor harmful and not helpful?

  • University incubator. A university that shall go unnamed recently created a startup incubator. It markets heavily to industry and students, but not to professors. Industry pays a considerable amount of money to get first dibs on new student startups and can also motivate them. Students are given the chance to join the incubator and thereby gain some resources and also presumably exposure to the companies as potential customers. Professors at the university generally don’t know about the incubator. When I asked about it, I first had to explain what the incubator is and does, only to get back in no uncertain terms that the professors will not support the incubator (nor mention it to students), because “we need our students for ourselves” as one professor put it. I asked the incubator about it and was told that professors would only get in the way. Rather than trying to build a bridge and constructively involve professors for mutual benefit, the incubator is cutting them off.

    Again, the logic of excluding professors eludes me. It may be true that many professors don’t know much about business, but wouldn’t they be able to at least help in their original domain, whatever it may be? Why the assumption that a professor will be overbearing and reach beyond their natural domain of competence? If they are stupid, they can always be cut out, after all, they don’t have an operational role, only a consulting one.

I think it is time for German institutions like public funding agencies or universities to let go of this divisive notion that professors should not be involved with startups. As universities like Stanford or MIT show, they can and should be involved wherever possible. They can be constructive contributors, not necessarily in an operational but at least in a consulting role. Many professors I know, even if they have no business background, would be more than willing to learn. Professors, as role models, and in their teaching, actually are still people that students listen to, and this is a chance to seed the sows for more startups that should not go unused.

2 Replies to “Professors and startups”

  1. Interesting. In California professors seem to be behind a bunch of famous startups and quite valued. Maybe in Germany they are more seen in their role as bureaucrats and teachers — uninspiring rule enforcers and killers of creativity?

    BTW is the black border around this page a “Trauerrand”?

    1. Hi Martin, yes, it bugs me no end that Germans seem to be so mistrusting. As to the Trauerrand, there is no good WP theme right now. Hoping for the next one.

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