June 12, 2015
For academics, the journey from a discovery to a product can be arduous. But as a culture of entrepreneurship has spread to universities across the country and around the world, aid stations have popped up to ease the way. They come in various forms, including campus competitions to solicit commercially viable ideas, universities establishing their own venture capital funds and “incubators” to nurture startup companies, and programs such as the Innovation Corps (I-Corps) at the National Science Foundation.
“We all know that entrepreneurship is the big buzzword today on campus,” says Laura Ray, an engineer at Dartmouth, who has founded two firms based on her work in acoustics and signal detection and runs a graduate fellowship program in innovation.
Ray's own entrepreneurial learning curve has been steep. Her first company, begun in 2005, was the result of a knock on the door from a university tech transfer official who asked if she had anything that could be taken to market. “We thought he was crazy,” Ray recalls—but she was willing to take a shot. Eight years later, a second company grew out of her participation in I-Corps' 10-week boot camp for would-be academic entrepreneurs. “I-Corps opened my eyes,” Ray says. “It taught me that you need to know the customer, and your value proposition—that is, how you plan to make money.”
Despite those commercial ventures, Ray has remained an academic. And although some scientists leave campus to follow their commercial dreams, most do not. They like research and teaching, for one thing, and may not think they have what it takes to run a company. “If I had quit my [academic] job, I don't know that I would have succeeded,” Ray admits.