Entrepreneurial academics are vital to growing the economy

This week has seen a positive commitment from Government to increase the level of funding for research and development; this came with the announcement that the Technology Strategy Board has increased its funding to support the growth and development of innovative ideas. Great news for entrepreneurial businesses that have the desire to compete on a global scale with groundbreaking technology, ones that will we typically see on the West Coast of the States, yes, Silicon Valley.

The TSB funding is great for the private sector, however can we ignore the potential impact universities, in their own right, could have on economic growth both locally and nationally? There is still a lot of work to be done in unlocking intellectual assets that lie within world class HE establishments. Vince Cable’s science, research and Innovation speech in late 2010 summed up the current position:

“The important point from a national economic perspective is that we continue to increase the level of economic interactions between business and the research base, including spin-outs, licensing, consultancy and commissioned research… This leads us on to the wider question of intellectual property and how we deal with it.  Universities make only 5% of their externally earned income from patents and licensing. There are some striking exceptions but more needs to be done”.

It’s fair to say that some universities have got financial problems, the only way forward for many of them is to think and act like a business – in other words customers should be at the heart of their strategy. Universities are the foundation of the knowledge economy and they must turn their expertise into revenue and job creation opportunities for both students and the wider population.  Universities are sat on a rich seam of expertise resource, capability and knowledge, so accelerated strategies to generate profitable revenues from this intellectual content must be found.

So what is holding HE from exploiting the vast array of opportunities presented to them?  I believe it’s the lack of customer focus, sense of urgency and appreciation of how important selling is to the commecialisation agenda. Thomas Edison said, Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent. Its sale is proof of utility, and utility is success”. Can anyone disagree with one of the greatest innovators of time?

Cultures need to change and universities need to breed a new generation of academics, ones that think and behave like Thomas Edison – entrepreneurially and with sales, customers and markets at the soul of creation. In the academic world life seems to go on hold at the beginning of June when academic teaching and exams are completed. Well in the business world life goes on and deals continue to be struck. Again its an ingrained culture that is not in the least bit entrepreneurial.

It truly puzzles me why the term “selling” is ignored in any public business growth support service. Growth means selling loads of stuff we must get HE researchers to think more clearly as to how their work translates into a spin out, licence or some other form of revenue stream. A balance of academic success and commercial reality can be achieved. Please can we get more university managers to start thinking about how they encourage academics to develop “entrepreneurial selling skills”, its what makes the economy go round. A new breed of academics is what the UK economy needs, ones that fuse excellence in research with commercial application – selling skills are part of the answer.

I am delighted to have been appointed as Visiting Entrepreneur at the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Manchester, one of the world’s finest academic establishments. My plan is to embed some of the Thomas Edison thinking and work with academics to create commercial value. An exciting 12 months ahead.

One Response to Entrepreneurial academics are vital to growing the economy

  1. Geoff Harding says:

    Good .uck in the new role John and I am sure many will follow these developments with interest.

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