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Tips on turning academics into entrepreneurs

Stephanie Baum on October 19, 2011 Source: MedCityNews.com

How do we make scientists better entrepreneurs? Make it worthwhile, get crazy and think young.

Those were some of the ideas at an “innovation town hall” at Philadelphia’s University City Science Center. The panel discussion is part of a nationwide series of talks to develop policy ideas to bolster the American life science sector’s competitiveness in the world and reverse the trend of jobs moving overseas. Stephen Tang, the CEO of the Science Center, is part of a 15-member innovation advisory board working with the federal government to recommend suggestions as part of the re-authorization of the America Competes Act.

There’s no shortage of academic institutions in Philadelphia with PhD candidates and post doctorate researchers who want to use their ideas and discoveries to launch businesses. But more need to be better prepared to market and sell their ideas or understand how to commercialize them, said New Spring Capital general partner Zev Scherl.

“We need to incentivize scientists. How do we get them to understand the value of equity?” Scherl said. “Teaching entrepreneurship to scientists is critical.”

“Most scientists are entrepreneurs but not business entrepreneurs,” said Glen Gaulton, chief scientific officer and executive vice dean at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. “We are trying to expose post docs to more examples of business entrepreneurship to be triple threats.”

Other ideas included:

Start ‘em young. “I would argue beginning [teaching entrepreneurship] as early as possible,” said Kenneth Blank, Temple University senior vice provost for research and graduate education. By the time they get a PhD they’re too focused, he added. Some panel members advocated for introducing entrepreneurial skills in high school. The need for greater STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, a concept championed by the Bush administration under the America Competes Act of 2007, was also raised.

Buck conservatism and remove restrictions. Academic institutions need to shift from rewarding individual successes to celebrating group accomplishments, advocated Blank. Gaulton pointed out that restrictions in academic settings prevent bringing in for-profit colleagues who could instill important practical business sense for student scientists. Getting high school students into the lab earlier and encouraging undergrads to do research were also some suggestions voiced by a second set of panel members.

Understand innovation and what drives it. Scherl said young people do not understand what has driven entrepreneurship in the U.S. “They look at Steve Jobs who quit college [to pursue his dream]. But others are very well educated. We have phenomenal scientists with unbelievable skill sets.”

The problem in our country, said one audience member, is we have more people who want to wait in line for an iPad than design one.

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