Faculty Inventor Roles in a Startup: Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way?

Nov. 19, 2020

Research universities are a key component of regional entrepreneurial ecosystems, producing intellectual property and often launching new companies based on that IP. These startups are vital assets to both their regions and the nation as a whole. But such startups are inherently based on very early-stage technology, needing both business and scientific leadership. This begs the question: should the university faculty inventor, the obvious technology expert, leave their research position at the university to lead the startup? 

There is no one answer for every individual or situation. In some cases, it might be appealing to the inventor to launch a company based on their research and personally see their invention through to commercialization and impact. In rare cases, this might be the best solution. However, in most cases, it’s better to engage someone else and allow the faculty to retain their university role.

There are many reasons for this, chief among them are passion, time, and expertise.

First, it’s important to consider passion – an indispensable element for anyone to be happy in their chosen path. Passion drives individuals to dedicate the time and acquire the expertise to become the best in their field. Faculty researchers chose their careers intentionally, dedicating years of study and research to arrive where they are today. Most faculty are not interested in abandoning that career path.

Leading a startup requires that same passion and dedication. It is not a part-time job. While faculty researchers are rarely interested in leaving their career in the university, investors want a committed, and focused, leadership team. More than anything, the startup needs someone to focus full-time…to eschew any other pursuits and devote themselves fully to the success of the startup. 

This is not to imply that no role exists for faculty inventors in startup companies. Their knowledge and expertise are vital to commercializing early-stage technologies, but history has shown that there are better ways to support the success of the startup while remaining in their university role. A scientific role in the company allows them to help guide the company technology direction while allowing someone else to focus on company formation, strategic planning, business development, and importantly, raising capital. What is most important is aligning the myriad needs of the startup with the knowledge, skills, and singular focus best suited to fulfill those needs. The business skills necessary are most efficiently and successfully provided when outside expertise is added to the startup team. While anyone MIGHT be able to do it, failure is more common than success, and one way to tip the scales is to leverage someone else’s experience.

So, who SHOULD lead the startup? Is it important to hire an expensive, full-time, experienced CEO? Not necessarily. In fact, most startups won’t have the money to engage one.

What the startup needs is "boots on the ground" – a champion relentlessly focused on moving the company forward.

Students and post-docs involved in the invention with the desire to pursue a startup represent excellent potential leaders. While they might not have entrepreneurial experience, they have expertise in the technology as well as the ability to focus full-time on the startup - without abandoning their career. In cases like this, a healthy ecosystem can provide invaluable support and resources in the form of incubators, accelerators, advisors, and experienced mentors.

To many investors, the team is often the most important aspect of a startup. Regardless of student involvement, it's important to engage someone in a leadership or formal advisory role experienced in early-stage companies. Someone who knows the necessary steps to move the company forward on all fronts, from business formation to fund-raising, and through, if required, regulatory approval. As both success and failure provide valuable lessons, startups can greatly benefit from a leader who has experienced the difficulties, frustrations and pitfalls of being an entrepreneur.

Without a doubt, identifying leadership can be daunting. While the desire might be to zero in on a "superstar," a startup needs someone that can commit the time and the effort and knows "what to do next." How can startups find that person? Fortunately, in the university environment, the tech transfer office (TTO) is designed to provide that support. 

University TTOs often gets a bad rap, accused of focusing only on dollars. In reality that hasn't been true for decades. Today’s TTOs are more accurately thought of as commercialization teams. Their goal is two-fold: service to the faculty, ensuring that the goals of the inventor(s) are met; and move world-changing technologies into the public where they can have societal impact.

TTOs provide myriad resources to help inventors move innovations ahead, including technology and market analysis, intellectual property protection, marketing, and more. Many full-service TTOs also have dedicated personnel to help launch startups based on university technologies. These professionals help inventors understand what’s needed to move a project forward, laying out a project plan to move from idea to launched startup with appropriate personnel and strategies. In most cases, TTOs create networks of potential business leaders and advisors to call upon for such opportunities. While it's always up to the startup team who should join the company, having access to a deep pool of experienced potential partners is key to making the right decision.

University startups need many resources to succeed. Bringing outside expertise to the startup team allows the faculty inventor to stay in the university and continue their life-long research while still serving as a scientific lead for the startup. Their academic thought and technological leadership are vital for the startup. In bringing entrepreneurial expertise to the startup team, TTOs help build a strong, strategic leadership team, setting the startup’s course for a successful, healthy future.