Every year, hundreds of innovations and discoveries take place in science and engineering labs at universities in the United States. Surprisingly, only a small percentage ever make it into commercial ventures. “These are discoveries that can lead to products or save lives,” says Michael W. Roach, Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. “They also contribute to economic development through job creation. They are vital to the U.S. economy, so getting them to market is important.”
Inventions and Discoveries and the People Who Made Them
In his quest to understand more about the intersection of university research and firm innovation, Roach is carrying out a series of research projects that examine startups as a vehicle for commercializing university research discoveries, with a particular focus on the scientists and engineers who make up the founding team. As part of this study, Roach is looking at invention disclosures from five of the most innovative universities in the country. The disclosures are documents generated by university research labs and reported to the university’s technology transfer office. They describe the research-based inventions and the members of the research teams doing the work. In collaboration with Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations’ Diane Burton, Roach is compiling information about the new companies started to commercialize these discoveries—especially the identities of their founding teams and their advisory committee members—to identify which members of the research team participate in the startup and their respective roles.
“We want to see which research team members go on to play a role in the startup founded to commercialize their own research,” Roach says, “and how important their participation is in the company’s development and ultimate success. There is a large amount of specific knowledge connected to the lab’s work. That knowledge is very hard to transfer to someone who wasn’t involved in the research, so it’s critical that someone from the research team participate in the commercialization of the discovery.”
Although a general belief in academia holds that the professor running the lab is the crucial link between the discovery and its commercialization, Roach says the key players are more likely to be the PhD students and the postdocs who were central members of the research team. Most often, it is the graduate students who take on important operational roles in the startups, while the faculty largely participate through an advisory role. “The fact is that many faculty don’t want to become entrepreneurs,” Roach says. “The solution is not to have them leave academia to found a company. The solution, I believe, is to provide pathways for PhD students and postdocs working on these projects to start the companies themselves. Until now, no one has looked at their contributions to commercialization.”
Mixed Messages: Where Do PhD Scientists and Engineers Go?
Looking at the entrepreneurial leanings of science and engineering PhD students and postdocs dovetails with another study Roach has been working on for almost a decade with Henry Sauermann at Georgia Tech. “A lot of the research in economics and policy assumes that scientists who work in industry have many of the same values and motives as those who stay in academia,” Roach explains. “We didn’t think that was true.”
Roach and Sauermann wanted to answer one of the big questions currently debated in universities: Are universities turning out too many science and engineering PhDs, or too few? “Academics say there are not enough jobs in science and engineering for the number of PhDs graduating from universities,” Roach says. “On the other hand, people in industry say, ‘We can’t get enough scientists.’ So what’s really going on?”
To answer these questions, Roach and Sauermann conducted a survey in 2010 of nearly 10,000 graduate students and postdocs in science and engineering from 39 Tier 1 United States research universities. The primary purpose of this survey was to gather baseline data on the research activities, attitudes, and career interests of a range of PhD students at various stages in their doctoral studies. They followed this up with a second survey three years later that sought to capture changes in career interest over time, as well as actual career outcomes for students who had graduated. They also conducted 80 field interviews to better understand why individuals pursue a PhD in the first place and how their career interests change during their studies. “We found that the majority of individuals started their PhD primarily because they wanted to do research, not because they wanted to be a professor,” says Roach. “That differs from the popular belief in academia that doctoral students pursue a PhD out of a desire for a faculty career.”
“Many faculty don’t want to become entrepreneurs,” Roach says. “The solution, I believe, is to provide pathways for PhD students and postdocs . . . to start the companies themselves.”
Roach and Sauermann’s survey findings showed that 87 percent of doctoral students in science and engineering programs started off very interested in academic careers, largely because it is the most salient career path for newly matriculated PhDs. Over time, however, more than a third of them lost interest in academia entirely. Yet, those who lost interest did not turn toward industry as might be expected. “Although these results are preliminary, it seems that many PhDs find it difficult to learn about alternative careers outside of academia, even after they no longer find academia an attractive career path,” Roach explains. “Doctoral students, especially at top research universities, are mentored by professors who are very successful academics. As such, these professors may strongly encourage students to pursue careers in academia as they have, or they may not be familiar enough with careers outside of academia to provide much help in understanding what other jobs are available.” The answer, Roach says, is for academia to provide more assistance to graduate students to help them explore a wide range of possible career paths. One such program at Cornell, funded in part by the National Institutes of Health’s Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training grant, helps graduate students and postdocs prepare for careers outside of academia.
One of those job possibilities is to found or work in a startup. Roach, who started a software company as a senior in high school, is especially interested in this career path. As part of the study on careers conducted with Sauermann, he looked at which individuals are drawn to an entrepreneurial work setting as either a founder or a startup employee. He found that those who wanted to work in startups, but did not want to be founders of the company, outnumbered the ones who wanted to be founders by four to one.
“There’s a large share of the science and engineering labor force who want to work in startups as employees rather than as founders,” Roach says. “They share some of the same attributes as founders: they are more tolerant of risk than those who want to work in established companies, they like the autonomy found in many startups, and they like to engage in the commercialization process.” Unlike founders, however, they are less interested in taking on a managerial role and running a company.
Understanding the characteristics of the entrepreneurial workforce and encouraging doctoral students to pursue jobs outside of academia is just one step in the evolution of academia’s acceptance of commercialization, Roach says. “Historically, academia has frowned upon non-academic careers and commercial activities, but attitudes are changing. I hope that my research will help us to better understand PhD career pathways in order to improve graduate training and doctorate career outcomes.”