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academic entrepreneur

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Clarysse, B., Andries, P., Boone, S., & Roelandt, J. (2023). Institutional logics and founders' identity orientation: why academic entrepreneurs aspire lower venture growth. Research Policy, 52(3), 104713.



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Title: The Academic Entrepreneur's Dilemma: How Institutional Logics Shape Growth Aspirations

In the world of entrepreneurship, the journey from lab to market is often hailed as the ultimate path to innovation and economic growth. Universities and research institutions have increasingly encouraged their scientists to commercialize their findings through spinoff ventures, hoping to unleash the next Google or Genentech. However, despite the mushrooming of academic entrepreneurship over the past few decades, the reality has often failed to live up to the hype.

A recent study by Bart Clarysse and colleagues sheds new light on this paradox, revealing how the very institutional logics that drive academic excellence may be hindering the growth aspirations of academic entrepreneurs. The researchers argue that the norms, values, and incentives that shape the academic environment imprint themselves on the identities of scientist-turned-entrepreneurs, leading them to prioritize different goals and outcomes than their non-academic counterparts.

At the heart of this dynamic lies what the authors call the founder's "identity orientation" – the extent to which they define themselves in relation to others and to social groups. Drawing on a survey of 171 founders participating in a Swiss startup competition, the study found that academic entrepreneurs displayed a weaker "Darwinian" orientation, characterized by a drive for personal wealth and market dominance, and a stronger "Communitarian" orientation, focused on supporting and being supported by a specific community.

These differences in identity orientation, the researchers argue, can be traced back to the distinct institutional logics that govern academia and business. While the business world rewards individual achievement, financial success, and market share, the academic environment places a premium on peer recognition, feedback, and the creation of societal benefits. Scientists are socialized into a culture where commercial success takes a backseat to scientific contributions, technology development, and the judgment of one's peers.

As a result, when academics venture into entrepreneurship, they carry with them a set of values and motivations that may not align with the growth imperative of the startup world. The study found that academic founders paid less attention to the potential personal financial gains of growing their venture, and more to the potential negative impact on their relationships with close collaborators and early adopters. This translated into lower overall growth aspirations compared to non-academic founders.

The findings raise important questions about the effectiveness of current policies aimed at promoting academic entrepreneurship. Universities and policymakers have often focused on removing institutional barriers and providing resources and support for spinoff creation. However, the study suggests that the roots of the problem may run deeper, embedded in the very identities and motivations of academic entrepreneurs themselves.

Addressing this challenge will require a rethinking of how scientists are trained and socialized long before they ever set foot in the entrepreneurial arena. The authors suggest that exposing young researchers to the norms and values of the business world, through joint programs and collaborations with industry professionals, could help bridge the cultural divide. They also advocate for policies that incentivize experienced entrepreneurs and investors to engage with academic spinoffs, infusing them with a more commercially-oriented logic.

At the same time, it's important to recognize that the lower growth aspirations of academic entrepreneurs may not necessarily be a problem to be solved, but a reflection of different priorities and definitions of success. A stronger communitarian orientation, for example, could lead to more sustainable and socially-responsible ventures, even if they don't scale at the same rate as their purely profit-driven counterparts.

Ultimately, the study highlights the complex interplay of institutional forces, individual identities, and entrepreneurial outcomes in the world of academic spinoffs. It reminds us that the path from lab to market is not just a matter of technology transfer and resource provision, but a deeply personal journey shaped by the values, norms, and relationships that define the academic experience.

As universities and policymakers continue to grapple with the challenges of commercializing science, they would do well to look beyond the surface-level barriers and incentives, and consider the deeper psychological and cultural factors that shape the aspirations and behaviors of academic entrepreneurs. Only by understanding and engaging with these underlying logics can we hope to unlock the full potential of scientific discovery to drive economic and societal progress.

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