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Picture of Academics & Entrepreneurs: three ways to bridge the gaps

Academics & Entrepreneurs: three ways to bridge the gaps

Tuesday, October 22, 2019


Dr Francine Morris is an academic and Associate Dean for Enterprise and Engagement at Salford Business School, University of Salford. Steve Rawling is an entrepreneur. Together, they’ve come up with some tips to help North West business leaders collaborate with academic researchers and get the most out of the expertise that is available in places like Salford Business School.

Steve: As a consultant, my clients are split 50:50 between academics and entrepreneurs. Getting them to work together can be like fixing up a speed-date between Del Boy and Dumbledore.

Francine: But business leaders might not realise how much places like Salford Business School have changed in the last ten years. There’s so much focus on collaboration, aligning with regional industrial strategy, spinning off commercial companies and knowledge transfer partnerships.

Steve: So, the potential is there for an exciting journey. Let’s look at some of the bumps in the road you might hit along the way.

  1. For entrepreneurs, time is money. They need to get stuff done as quickly as possible.

Meanwhile, the academic “business cycle” is part of a calendar of semesters, exams and admissions. Research proposals go before funding panels that might only meet once a year whereas knowledge transfer partnerships can be more responsive. Academics like to know what’s already known before they start work. They call this a literature review; it’s their way of sussing out the landscape of existing ideas, theories and data before setting out on a journey. This all takes time. If you push an academic for a quick answer, they’ll probably tell you they’re still working on the question.

Francine: Be prepared for this collaboration to take time. Why do you need a quick decision? What might you gain from thorough research into the problem you’re trying to solve?

Steve: If there IS a reason to act fast, set out your timeframe clearly and ask your academic partner what can be achieved within it so that both parties understand the other’s expectations from day 1.

  1. As an entrepreneur, the “proof” of what works is all around you; you hear it in stories of successful products and businesses. You see it in the behaviour of consumers. You feel it in your gut.

Academics have a saying: “the plural of anecdote is not data”. For them, what you’re seeing is just “social proof”, i.e.; a rule of thumb based on what works for others. Reliable proof comes from data. “Social proof”, anecdotes and gut instinct are hard to quantify, and hard to make confident predictions about.

Francine: Academics are good with data, so be prepared to have your assumptions and “social proof” challenged in a good way.

Steve: But don’t let them underestimate the power of gut feeling - or anything else that can’t be stuck in a spreadsheet.

  1. The market rewards entrepreneurs for taking risks. When you fail, you lose money. As the philosopher and financial trader Nicholas Nasim Taleb says, “you have skin in the game” when it’s your own money at stake. Entrepreneurs learn not to take failure too personally. There’s even a rich tradition of “here’s what I learned when I went bust” stories.

Academics have a different kind of skin in the game: reputation. They operate in a cut-throat world of funding applications and publications. The value of their work is judged subjectively, by their peers. This feels a lot more personal than having your work judged objectively, by the market. Imagine what it would be like to have your work - and your reputation - ripped to shreds in public because your rivals found a flaw in your data or argument.

Francine: You might be happy with a speculative venture, you might even be ready to write off the costs as R&D losses. But consider what’s at stake for your academic partner if things don’t work out. Working collaboratively towards a common goal helps support outcomes that are beneficial to both parties.

Steve: Understand why academics might hold back until they’re certain about their data and their argument.

Francine: Optimism is the driving force that starts new businesses and seeks out new markets. But every failed entrepreneur was also an optimist once. If you’re about to take a risky decision, it pays to listen academic experts in your field.

Steve: Don’t let your natural optimism blind you to risks highlighted by your academic partner. Don’t ignore awkward facts or difficult questions - and don’t shoot the messenger! 


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