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A Magazine of Politics and Culture

The Academic as Entrepreneur

Universities may be the new Silicon Valley. That should worry us.

Professor Coskun Kocabas joined the University of Manchester as a materials engineer in 2017. The university seemed like a perfect fit for his research interests—the applications of the novel material graphene. Graphene was first successfully isolated in 2004 by a pair of scientists at Manchester, winning them the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010. Since the discovery, the university has been ramping up graphene research and has since created two expensive new research institutes devoted to finding applications to substantiate early media hype about the material.

In Manchester, Kocabas discovered a new technology: an optoelectronic graphene device that can tune the radiation emitted by a body. To put it simply, it was a graphene-based technology that could control the light given off by an object.

What Kocabas had helped develop was basically a cloaking device, which sounds like science fiction but has profound application to military and civilian life. For instance, human bodies and machines give off heat in the form of infrared radiation when they’re burning energy, and if you put on a pair of infrared goggles, you can see these hot objects even in the dark. Kocabas’ device would be able to cloak such hot objects and control the infrared radiation they give off and make them invisible to infrared sensors. From a military standpoint, it would definitely be a strategic advantage to cloak the presence of tanks and troops from the gaze of infrared-sensing drones. On the civilian side, Kocabas gives the example of how this could help thermally manage satellite systems as they orbit around the Earth at ten times the speed of bullets. Such satellites need to control how much heat they absorb and emit depending on whether they are directly exposed to the sun’s rays during their orbit.

Seeing the ramifications of his technology early on, Kocabas filed for a patent through his university before the publication of his paper on the subject. Most universities now are equipped to help their academics file patents. What was once a laborious and expensive process is expedited with the help of in-house patent attorneys and intellectual property offices. Once his university got a look at Kocabas’ invention, they strongly encouraged him to create his own spin-out company using their facilities and resources. Fast-forward to SmartIR, a company commercializing “disruptive technologies for space and defense,” according to their website. Kocabas is now the founder  and scientific director of a company that has recently signed a contract with the European Space Agency Business Incubation Centre, receiving over USD $57k (or GBP £43k) in incentives to test their technology in space.

The Rise of Entrepreneur-cum-Academics

Stories like Kocabas’ would have been unheard of just two or three decades ago. Direct commercialization of research by academics was not only rare but was even frowned upon as it was seen to distract scientists from “real” research. Such times seem like a far cry from the present, as the biggest research universities have entire innovation arms dedicated to helping academics create businesses out of their realms of expertise. The University of Manchester has the Innovation Factory—an arm that identifies internal research that has market potential and then develops businesses based on that research. Other big universities, such as Stanford and MIT, which each spin out around 20 to 30 companies per year, have similar incubators and accelerators.

Even Kocabas seems surprised at how rapidly he became a researcher- cum-entrepreneur. “I’m a very scientific person, I had no interest for this kind of commercial business and to be honest, I didn’t have any education on business.” He mentions via video interview that he bought Business for Dummies to understand concepts like “value-creation” and “business plans,” and he pulls out his latest read, The Lean Startup by Eric Ries.

Kocabas is one of many scientists and engineers who have found themselves as new business owners, a trend that is quickly intensifying as universities reorganize their research ecosystems to become more market oriented. It’s not quite clear what implications such a trend will have on research quality and research priorities, but some see it as a trend that is very much in line with the growing neoliberalism of academic spaces. Such neoliberalization entails the application of competitive market dynamics in higher education: universities run like businesses for profitability and growth in the context of dwindling public funds. Neoliberalization has produced profound effects such as higher tuition fees and the transformation of academic jobs from highly secure, full-time employment to tenuous part-time or adjunct positions.

Erkko Autio, the Chair in Technology Venturing and Entrepreneurship at Imperial College London Business School, has been monitoring the university spin-out space since the 1980s. “In that time span, it’s been a revolutionary transformation,” he says. He charts the change in administration mindset. “Universities started gradually; they started building science parks,” he says. Science parks are property developments built typically around universities, aimed at commercializing academic research. Autio says: “But that was kind of a way to try to box the activity—you have a building somewhere and anyone who wants to develop a business from their research is put there. They were in their own ivory tower and there was no connectivity with anything else.”

Slowly but surely, entrepreneurship became much more integrated into mainstream university activity as universities began to realize the economic potential of spin-out companies and began investing heavily in infrastructure to facilitate their formation. Between 2008 and 2011, the rate of university spin-out formation in the UK increased by 46 percent, and is likely to be even higher presently. Faculty members who were engaged in entrepreneurship were seen to be more ‘research-productive,’ counter to previous beliefs that running a business would distract from research obligations. These faculty published more papers and received more grants and citations. When asked why this was the case, Autio says: “It’s mostly because they tend to keep their doors open more and they occasionally look out from the window and see how the world looks like. That’s how you discover interesting research topics: by talking to industry and asking, ‘What are your challenges today?’”

Such an approach encapsulates neoliberal logic. It is the marketplace—not necessarily other scientific experts—that best determines what is in the public interest and hence what the most pressing scientific challenges are. To Autio, such a shift is positive. It represents a move away from the ‘navel-gazing’ of previous ivory-tower research and instead prioritizes the practical impacts of what researchers do. By emphasizing those practical impacts, research becomes more attractive to industry and enhances industry collaboration, helping universities to raise funding. Such is the start to a virtuous cycle, Autio says. “It’s a beneficial loop where everyone benefits: you get more funding for your research; your students become more employable; you become more attractive to students because you are known for doing things that are interesting.”

Market-focused universities now have a host of mechanisms they use to commercialize their research. Beyond help with filing patents, they help connect their in-house startups with industry partners that can provide funding. Many also now teach tailored entrepreneurial skills to the student body so graduates can go on to staff the business teams of those startups. Some universities even host internal schemes where academics and students compete against one another for a limited pool of startup capital, directly provided by the university.


But at What Price?

But this trend has had its fair share of controversy. Rebecca Lave, Professor and Chair of the Department of Geography at Indiana University, has written about the impacts of neoliberalism in environmental sciences. She suggests that researchers could just be trading up one ivory tower for another. “It definitely makes sense to me that you could have products developed more quickly from academic research if there were stronger industrial-university links,” she says. “Where I have a problem is the transparency.”

When the goal of academic research is to create a marketable product, there are incentives for researchers to patent emerging technologies or processes in an attempt to gain a future monopoly. While patents do not necessarily keep nonprofit research from happening, they do prevent the development of the patent’s other commercial applications by other people. The patent holder has huge discretionary power to charge high prices when their product eventually hits the market, no matter how socially valuable the innovation may be. So, academics like Lave worry about the implications marketization has on who ultimately can access the knowledge created under this model.

She argues that plenty of public interest research occurred before the marketization of research: “Public health scientists that are teaming up with communities that are trying to prove the impacts of pollution in their neighborhoods; humanities professors that are working in low-income schools to help people learn to write; science professors that are doing vaccine development.”

But neoliberal logic holds that market imperatives are social imperatives, and vice versa. The underlying argument is that what is considered socially valuable is what people are willing to pay for. Furthermore, because publicly valuable institutions such as higher education are generating profit, they should be run like for-profit companies in terms of structure and organization—a trend that has affected many other aspects of higher education such as the payment and treatment of academics themselves.

Lave points to this logic as distinct from other historical processes of commercialization in science. On top of the rationale of the ‘marketplace of ideas’ being applied to scientific ideas, there is a greater emphasis on the privatization of knowledge and the application of property rights over knowledge, she says.  Lave also adds that there is an increased emphasis on selling the knowledge that has been removed from the public sphere through privatization back to the public—a recent example being the COVID-19 vaccine. Government spending may actually increase as a result of privatization of knowledge. States would still be investing public money into research and development, but would now be forced to buy the fruits of their investment. Kocabas’ company, for instance, has received €150,000 in EU funding to develop its graphene thermal shields. But when the product is eventually completed, public bodies like the European Space Agency will have to spend more public money to purchase it.

However, Autio believes that knowledge within the public realm will increase as a result of strengthened industry links. “Knowledge commons are different—knowledge does not get diminished by consumption, it is increased by consumption,” he says. He gives the example of software code or artificial intelligence where companies like Google have the interest to keep a large chunk of their research or technology open-access so that others can work on it. Allowing this open, transparent access also speeds up the pace of innovation, Autio says. However, if we were to look a gift horse in the mouth, these companies may have ulterior motives in promoting such open-source projects. Software giants like Microsoft and Google may promote open-source projects in order to maintain market control—having something be free is a great way to ensure your developer and community reach is increased and that new users are exposed to your platform. Market control, though it doesn’t result in immediate revenue, allows corporations monopoly power over, for example, price controls. Having big behemoths able to develop and maintain open-source projects may also make it impossible for hobbyists or smaller interest groups to compete, crowding them out.

Autio cites the success of the race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine to prove how beneficial public-private collaboration can be:

“When we see start-ups, such as biotech, and we see the central role that biotech played in advancing and validating the technology that enabled us to develop COVID vaccines in less than a year, we see an astounding achievement with global impact.”

But those vaccines came at a price, and they went to the countries that could afford the price tag. At the end of 2021, the World Health Organization announced that only 9 percent of people on the continent of Africa had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. (The percentage has improved to 17.7 percent as of May this year, a percentage still far short of the goal of 70 percent.)

“Rich governments are buying the doses and they’re paying enormous amounts of money for something that was developed with huge amounts of public sector input,” Lave says. “It’s nuts if you think about it—a few companies are making large amounts of profit out of a collective effort that involves enormous numbers of publicly-funded researchers.”


It’s Neoliberalism All the Way Down

In this model, public bodies may end up paying twice to access the fruits of research in an age where public funding for research is growing scarce. Both Autio and Lave acknowledge that universities are increasingly strapped for money due to funding cuts, which has pressured them to seek alternative income streams. The shrinking number of grants increases competitiveness among researchers, and there is now an enhanced burden of proof on scientists to show that their research is high impact.

In the United Kingdom, for example, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) is used to assess the quality of research in UK higher education providers. The REF is historically preceded by the University Grants Committee, which during the 1980s Thatcher administration was used to demonstrate “value for money” for its public spending—in other words, to achieve economy, efficiency, and effectiveness. Results of the REF inform the allocation of around £2 billion in funding per year. As part of the REF’s criteria, impact on society accounts for 25 percent of the assessment. Impact is generally assessed as the extent to which research changes or benefits the economy, society, culture, or general quality of life. Universities are not only pressured to pursue market-based impact strategies for their research to attract private sources of income (such as industry-funded grants), but also when competing against one another for public funding.

Spin-out companies are an efficient solution. They ensure that research has a clear impact in terms of delivering a product to market. This secures public funding and helps attract private investors. Conducting market research and market analysis is cheaper than it ever has been with digital technologies that make it easy to gather market information (e.g., conducting online surveys), especially when supplemented by the spin-out company facilities that universities will now provide. These facilities are no longer the segregated science parks that Autio saw in the past. Many innovation incubators and accelerators rely on being heavily integrated into the University.

Scientists do the research and the university helps them file and maintain the patent. Then an entrepreneurial team works with scientists, who lack real-world business experience, to create businesses out of their patents. These business teams are often staffed by former students of the university. Universities are scaling up efforts to teach undergraduates and postgraduates entrepreneurial skills to make them more “employable,” particularly in the university’s own spin-out spaces.

For instance, the Chief Operating Officer of Kocabas’ company completed her PhD in the Graphene Condensed Matter Group at the University of Manchester, after which she joined a graphene company which spun out of her alma mater. Eventually, she took a job at SmartIR. Autio’s own institution, Imperial College London, has its own Enterprise Division, which is responsible for helping external investors looking to license university technologies, as well as its own Business School.

The heavy integration of entrepreneurship and commercialization into university operations may seem intuitive at first. If the amount of public money is shrinking as per neoliberalism’s demand to decrease state involvement in the economy, then these alternate income streams surely just expand the available pool of funding for research that otherwise would not have existed at all. However, this scenario is not like a tide that lifts all boats. Lave says that the drive to commercialize research may shape research priorities and goals. She gives the example of plant engineering.

Referencing analysis by rural sociologist Jack Kloppenburg, she explains that public sector scientists were blocked from developing seed varieties that could not be patented due to the interests of agrochemical companies like Cargill and Pfizer. She says, “Seeds are inherently very difficult to commercialize because, if you grow a plant, you can save the seeds and replant them.” Therefore, there was no money to be made if farmers could just use replenishable seed varieties—that is, until hybrid seeds were developed. Hybrid seeds are designed to grow high yields when they are first used, but are such that any saved seeds will produce lower yields.

“What happened is that the process of marketization forced public sector scientists to develop hybrid seeds rather than working on basically open-access varieties,” Lave says.


Similar contractions in the focus of research can happen when other public sector sciences come into conflict with the mega trend of neoliberalization. We can ask whether or not opinions critical of industry or research not guaranteed to result in successful marketization would succeed in gaining any funding or traction. Consider a case in which freedom of speech in a research university was influenced by industrial ties. In 2011, the University of Wyoming Art Museum featured a sculpture by British artist Chris Drury that examined the connection “between global warming and the pine beetle infestation that has ravaged forests across the Rockies.” The installation not only faced huge opposition by pro-energy officials in politics but also representatives from the energy sector. The university was bombarded by emails from displeased officials from Cloud Peak Energy, BP, and Encana. As a placating measure, the director of the School of Energy Resources (SER) reaffirmed the university’s loyalty—reminding the companies that the SER had committed $1.5 million in additional investment to the Encana Lab earlier that month. The Encana lab produces research related to oil production. As private enterprise becomes more and more vital to a university’s life line, the buck stops with them and not the other parties involved in research production. The controversy ultimately led to the “quiet removal of the artwork.”

We can also ask what happens to the art and humanities departments of universities when they fail to attract industry partnerships. Such departments are often the ones that produce research that is critical of corporate behavior. When universities begin to filter research through the sieve of industrial needs, it’s possible that departments training students in politics, art, history, philosophy— the subjects that create a well-rounded citizen (but not necessarily an ideal consumer)—will be left to the wayside or also be made palatable to industry. For instance, many universities may heavily encourage academics in social science and humanities to provide consulting services and contract research to private clients, incentivizing them with promises of career progression. Like their peers in STEM, humanities researchers may find themselves increasingly embedded in inherently commercial research environments. Earlier this decade, “social science parks”—the humanities equivalent of science parks—became the new craze, with one being constructed in Cardiff University in Wales. The social science research park (SPARK) encourages and facilitates the connection of researchers with policy-makers, NGOs, and also private companies. Academics in SPARK quite literally work in the same space as those in the private sector, blurring the line between them. The research priorities of SPARK are then heavily shaped by what these private third parties think are the most pressing social problems.

Humanities and social science professors may one day end up in the dual roles Kocabas finds himself in: both academic and businessperson. To him, helping to run a company is more work on his plate. “At the end of the day, you have 24 hours. No one is really reducing my duties because of the company, so I have to do this on top of what I already do,” he says. Expectations of innovation and entrepreneurial spirit are yet other things in the growing job description of the overworked academic, but as Kocabas says, “If you can do it, why not?” 

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