Developing Entrepreneurial Universities: Examining Entrerpeneurial Motivations of Faculty in Spin-off Firms

Suki Wang
UC Riverside

Siqi Wang

Introduction and Aims
Contemporary universities exist in an era that is characterized by entrepreneurial use of knowledge. Route 128 and Silicon Valley are salient examples of how university research can generate economic spillovers and advance innovation. These innovations would not have been possible without the strong foundation of university research as well as entrepreneurial faculty who are motivated to put their inventions and ideas into use. However, previous research indicated that the promotion of academic entrepreneurship contradicts academic values and educational functions of the university (Slaughter & Leslie, 1997; Slaughter & Rhoades, 2004), which could result in a diminished role of academic functions. The reform of the university to simultaneously fulfill both the educational and innovational demands from society remains an elusive goal.
The purpose of the investigation is to examine and explain, through an analysis of faculty entrepreneurs’ perceptions of their academic roles, the ways in which academic entrepreneurship influences community engagement, education, and research. In doing so, the investigation sought to shed light on the development of purpose-driven universities in the context of entrepreneurial society. Although academic entrepreneurship has been discussed extensively in the literature, most studies focused on the dimension of academic patenting and licensing. Hence, the present investigation focused on the dimension that is beyond academic patents—that is, faculty engagement in university spin-off firms. Specifically, I examined the relations between academic entrepreneurship and academic work at three public research universities in the United State that is characterized by high, middle, and beginning stage of the entrepreneurial process. By detailing the institutional culture as well as the faculty perceived imperatives and barriers for entrepreneurship, the present investigation contributes to the understanding of academic work and the building blocks of the entrepreneurial university.
If we live in a complex, interconnected world where innovation forms the fabric of our society, then the understanding of motivations and barriers for the university to become entrepreneurial is critical to the development of the innovative economy.
Research Methodology
The present investigation adopted a qualitative research methodology with a dilemma analysis strategy. The data includes interviews with 45 faculty members from the University of California. Three campuses—UCLA, UCI, and UCR—were selected based on their entrepreneurial stage to recruit faculty participants. The investigation employed a purposeful sampling strategy and selected faculty members who (1) work in an engineering department from the three universities, (2) obtain a tenure/tenure track faculty status, and (3) created a startup or spinoff firm within their institutions. The data collection strategy relies mainly on semi-structured interviews because it is particularly useful to collect in-depth data on individuals’ perceptions towards certain phenomenon and identify internal motivations of engagement. I draw upon academic identity, professional identity, and entrepreneurial traits as identity standards (Burke & Stets, 2009) to conceptualize faculty shared values and processes of rationalization towards their entrepreneurial participation, and thereby theorize the identity of entrepreneurial faculty and entrepreneurial motivations. By comparing faculty perspectives at three universities that are in different stages of the entrepreneurial process, I sought to explain how institutional contexts shape faculty entrepreneurial motivation as well as the entrepreneurial identity.
Results and Implications
Findings suggest that faculty entrepreneurial motivation is formed in two additional forms: first, in the form of federal steering, and second in the form of regional nurturing. The steering power of federal agencies is enacted through the availability of funding programs and through the federal agenda for academic innovation. The regional nurturing mechanism provides imperatives and resources for universities and their faculty members to align their research with the regional goals. Additionally, findings show that academic identity is still prevalent in faculty sensemaking of their entrepreneurial behaviors, and thus aligning academic entrepreneurship with the university’s educational goals provides additional legitimacy for faculty engagement in academic entrepreneurship, which enhances their capacity to simultaneously fulfill their educational roles and entrepreneurial goals.
The present investigation contributes to the understanding of faculty entrepreneurial motivation and thereby helping to close the gap for universities to simultaneously fulfill its educational and entrepreneurial missions. The main outcomes of the investigation provide a framework for colleges and universities to reconsider the state of academic work and the university educational agenda.