The Perfect Professor for University Startups

A professor, so my belief, can play an important role in generating startups from University research. Most professors don’t, but some do, and I wanted to summarize my experiences as to what would be the perfect combination in one person.

Situation

There are three ingredients to get a university startup set-up and off the ground: (1) team, (2) idea, and (3) seed funding. Team, as anyone in startup-land knows, is by far the most important ingredient, as the others ultimately follow from it.

A great team has (1) the right people, (2) enough people, available (3) at the same time. In total, the people need to have sufficient entrepreneurial spirit and bring a diverse skill set to the table. In most circumstances, you also need more than one person, and if only to satisfy expectations of public funding agencies. Finally, most students are constrained by wanting to finish their degree, be it a Bachelor, Master, or PhD program, so their timelines need to be aligned.

The startup’s idea needs to at least make sense, but perhaps more importantly, needs to inspire the team to make it jell so it commits to the startup.

The startup will want funding soon, in particular if older students, e.g. Ph.D. graduates with families, are involved. Given that money necessarily won’t flow right away, the startup needs bridge funds.

With these needs, I can now align what a professor can do to create a situation that matches the one just described. Fail to fulfill just one need, and you may have a mess rather than a startup at-hand.

Professor

The professor typically starts with the idea, though it is also possible to start with a particularly strong entrepreneurial person at hand. The professor needs to be creative and have business acumen to assess the viability of the idea. They also need to be a good researcher to acquire public research funding to pay for the team. Most professors already fail at this stage, choosing to work on topics their scientific peers find interesting, but that have no potential economic impact.

With a fundable research idea of potential economic impact at hand, the professor needs to acquire grant money to fund people. Ideally, the professor goes for large grants that pay 2-4 Ph.D. students at a time so that there are enough people for the startup who also start and presumably finish at the same time.

The professor also needs to have good people skills in selecting the potential team members, whether they are paid for Ph.D. students or Master students just finishing up. This can be done on the spot, but is most likely more successful, if the professor starts the finding process during the students’ degree program already by giving them appropriate opportunity to build and demonstrate relevant skills.

Finally, the professor needs to run a well-organized shop with reserve funds that can cover for glitches or short intermediate periods of time in which the timelines of the students are aligned. University startups, at least in Germany, often go for public funds first, because they are a gift (no loss of equity) at a time when funding is most expensive.

Summary

So there you have it. In my analysis, a professor with the following skills and preferences has the best chances of creating successful startups:

  1. Has business understanding
  2. Creates / finds inspiring idea
  3. Acquires research funds for idea
  4. Acquires multi-person grants
  5. Builds appropriate student supply
  6. Knows how to select right people
  7. Has reserves to align timelines

That’s a lot, and I don’t actually know many professors who fit this bill. I think, though, that if professors would be interested, they could acquire these skills, as most of them can be learned. The benefit of such professors, I suggest, would be the creation of significantly more startups than what random chance creates, which is the process most universities still follow these days.

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