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A Radical Idea for Pure Science: The Scientist-Entrepreneur

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As much as we celebrate new technology and treat successful entrepreneurs like rock stars, there is still a tension at many universities between the mission of fundamental research and the quest to commercialize new breakthroughs.

These competing goals have tied universities in knots for decades. Will "pure" science--knowledge for the sake of knowledge--be cheapened by commercial priorities? How can professors even teach properly if they are preoccupied with starting companies and getting rich?

And even if universities want to encourage entrepreneurs, are they up to the job? Many elite business schools have traditionally focused more on developing managerial skills than on the entrepreneurial challenge of building something new from the ground up.

Fortunately, the conventional wisdom is breaking down fast. A new model, which I call "guided academic entrepreneurship," can actually reinforce traditional university values of basic research, higher education, and the public dissemination of knowledge.

For evidence, look no further than the bastion of fundamental research itself: the National Science Foundation. Since 1950, the NSF has been funding academic research at the frontiers of mathematics, physics, engineering, biology, and most other scientific fields. NSF grants are the gold standard for peer-reviewed research. The NSF has funded more than 200 Nobel Prize winners.

But now the NSF is itself breaking down the barriers between basic research and commercial development. Under its I-Corps program, the NSF is actually paying major universities to help turn NSF-funded breakthroughs into entrepreneurial ventures.

For decades, universities and government agencies alike have used "tech transfer" offices to license out their discoveries. It's a largely passive approach, though some universities have actively encouraged students and faculty to start their own ventures.

The NSF I-Corps program takes everything to a much higher level. The core idea is to create coordinated innovation hubs, or "nodes," that provide scientific researchers with an intensive curriculum in entrepreneurship, mentoring from entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, and seed money to investigate the commercial opportunities.

In February, the NSF awarded $11 million to launch three regional "innovation nodes" clustered around New York City, Washington, DC, and the San Francisco Bay Area. The Bay Area program will be a collaboration of the University of California at Berkeley, Stanford University, and the University of California at San Francisco. Scientific researchers will be trained on the "Lean Launchpad," a framework developed by Steven Blank, a Silicon Valley veteran and a lecturer at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business. Each researcher will work closely with a principle investigator on the faculty, as well as with business mentors--often venture capitalists or entrepreneurs--who know the particular field. Each team receives an NSF grant to come up with a business model that could attract venture capital.

Never before has such a major institution of basic research tied itself so closely to entrepreneurship. Indeed, the NSF designated our business school--Berkeley-Haas--to be in charge of the Bay Area consortium. The NSF's message is clear: business ventures don't "taint" scientific research; they strengthen it and enable it to better serve society.

This model has important lessons for universities. "Tech transfer" is about more than licensing patents. It requires close collaboration between scientists, entrepreneurs, and investors. It also requires leadership from the university. Stanford didn't become a hotbed of Silicon Valley startups by luck; it built Stanford Research Park in 1951 and leased space to Hewlett-Packard in its infancy. UC Berkeley has SkyDeck, a new-business accelerator funded by the Haas School and the College of Engineering, Lawrence Berkeley Labs, and the city of Berkeley.

Does this threaten core university values? No. The truth is that entrepreneurship can reinforce a university's mission and strengths. Turning a research breakthrough into a business is a classic exercise in cross-disciplinary thinking and collaboration--exactly the values that a great research university supports. It also requires subjecting ideas to rigorous challenge and being open to ideas even if they threaten to disrupt the status quo.

A purely academic institution is always at risk of becoming too rigid, dedicated to protecting established canons rather than making new discoveries and helping them contribute to the public good. Entrepreneurship requires people to champion ideas that may initially seem outlandish, and to keep innovating ahead of the competition. Entrepreneurs aren't searching for ultimate truths, but they bring an openness to fresh ideas and an intellectual rigor to testing their validity.

I myself have been a scholar and an entrepreneur throughout my career. Trust me: people on both sides of the fence have a lot to learn from each other.

David J. Teece is director of the Institute for Business Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley's Haas School of Business. He is also chairman of Berkeley Research Group in Emeryville, California.