Research Article: Encouraging entrepreneurship in university labs: Research activities, research outputs, and early doctorate careers

Date Published: February 8, 2017

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Michael Roach, Sakamuri V. Reddy.


This paper investigates how the encouragement of entrepreneurship within university research labs relates with research activities, research outputs, and early doctorate careers. Utilizing a panel survey of 6,840 science & engineering doctoral students at 39 R1 research universities, this study shows that entrepreneurship is widely encouraged across university research labs, ranging from 54% in biomedical engineering to 18% in particle physics, while only a small share of labs openly discourage entrepreneurship, from approximately 3% in engineering to approximately 12% in the life sciences. Within fields, there is no difference between labs that encourage entrepreneurship and those that do not with respect to basic research activity and the number of publications. At the same time, labs that encourage entrepreneurship are significantly more likely to report invention disclosures, particularly in engineering where such labs are 41% more likely to disclose inventions. With respect to career pathways, PhDs students in labs that encourage entrepreneurship do not differ from other PhDs in their interest in academic careers, but they are 87% more likely to be interested in careers in entrepreneurship and 44% more likely to work in a startup after graduation. These results persist even when accounting for individuals’ pre-PhD interest in entrepreneurship and the encouragement of other non-academic industry careers.

Partial Text

Entrepreneurial activity is increasingly encouraged on university campuses in the hope that it will foster the commercialization of scientific discoveries, stimulate job creation, and generate greater returns to federal investments in university research. To this end, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health have recently introduced programs such as the Innovation Corps (I-Corps) to foster entrepreneurial activity and prepare science and engineering graduate students for careers in entrepreneurship [1]. At the same time, there is considerable debate over whether science and entrepreneurship can coexist in research universities. Proponents contend that faculty and graduate students should embrace entrepreneurship as a means of broadening the impact of university research on society and economic growth, while also lamenting that academic norms discouraging entrepreneurship hinder such efforts. Opponents, on the other hand, express concerns that encouraging entrepreneurship may undermine the core mission of research universities by shifting attention away from fundamental research and toward commercial outcomes.

This study draws upon the Science and Engineering PhD Panel Survey (SEPPS), which was conducted by the author and a co-investigator in 2010, 2013 and 2016 [7]. The survey was approved by the Georgia Institute of Technology Institutional Review Board and validated by inviting a select sample of PhD students to complete the survey followed by an exit interview to probe students’ understanding of key questions and to solicit feedback on the instrument. Participation in the survey was voluntary and subjects consented by completing the survey.

This study first documents the encouragement of entrepreneurship across fields, universities, and faculty rank. It then investigates the relationship between encouraging entrepreneurship in university labs and PhD students’ basic research activities, as well as their number of publications and invention disclosure activities. Finally, this study examines the relationship between encouraging entrepreneurship and PhD students’ interests in academic and entrepreneurial careers during graduate training and their post-graduate employment outcomes in academia and in entrepreneurial firms.

These findings illustrate that science and entrepreneurship coexist within research universities, with implications for federal and university policies to stimulate entrepreneurial activity and programs to prepare STEM PhD students for careers in entrepreneurship. First, although the body of evidence presented here is correlational and not causal, the results suggest that encouraging entrepreneurship does not come at the expense of universities’ fundamental research mission. More precisely, encouraging entrepreneurship does not diminish basic research or publishing, while it is significantly associated with invention disclosures, particularly in engineering. One implication is that when university research has both scientific and commercial outcomes, encouraging participation in entrepreneurship may indeed broaden the impact of university research on society through commercialization without diminishing its contribution to scientific advance.