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Kauffman Report: Scholarly Research on Tech Transfer Has Matured Beyond ‘Niche’ Status

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The amount of academic research on university entrepreneurship has increased dramatically since the beginning of the decade, in line with an increased level of entrepreneurship at universities worldwide, according to a report released last week by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.
 
In addition, the report argues that future studies of university entrepreneurship and technology transfer should employ more in-depth, data-oriented analyses, and garner coverage in top-tier academic journals on economics, management strategy, and entrepreneurship.
 
The report, entitled “University Entrepreneurship: A Taxonomy of the Literature,” analyzes the entire body of scholarly work published on university entrepreneurship over 25 years, from 1981 – the year following the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act that established modern-day technology transfer – to 2005.
 
The authors of the report – Frank Rothaermel, Shanti Agung, and Lin Jiang, all researchers in the College of Management at the Georgia Institute of Technology – received funding for the research from the Kauffman Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The research report was published July 18 in an advanced online version of the journal Industrial and Corporate Change.
 
“We submit that the collective scholarship on university entrepreneurship has created a critical mass over the last 25 years that can not only provide guidance to policy makers and other practitioners, but has also progressed and evolved to a point where it is ready to be published in many of the premier academic journals, and thus move beyond a niche field into the mainstream of scholarly debate,” the report’s authors write.
 
For the purposes of the study, the authors defined university entrepreneurial activities as broadly as possible, including activities such as patenting and licensing; creating incubators, science parks, and university spin-out companies; and investing equity in start-up companies.
 
According to the report, 173 articles were published in 28 academic journals by 232 scholars during the 25-year period. However, approximately 73 percent, or 127 of these articles, were published between 2000 and 2005.
 
“I think this is a reaction of academics to a phenomenon that has really taken off in the last couple of years,” Rothaermel told BTW in an interview. “Academics have really been active in this area for the last five or six years and, in general – at least in the social sciences, such as economics, management, and other areas – they tend to respond to real-world phenomena. There is a real increase, and we’re trying to make sense of this.”
 
The researchers write in the report that “the increasing volume of studies on this topic corresponds with the increasing levels of entrepreneurship in universities around the world.” This spike in entrepreneurship can be attributed to institutional changes such as a rise in venture capital; the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act; a rise in the pool and thus mobility of scientists and engineers; and technological breakthroughs such as the advent of the microprocessor, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology.
 
Furthermore, the authors argue, a technology “push and pull” can further explain the spike in entrepreneurial activity and published research on that activity.
 
“The increase in university entrepreneurship can be attributed in part due to industry’s growing demand for technological innovation in recent decades,” the authors write in describing the “pull” effect. As part of this effect, they write, “universities are recognized as one of the key sources for innovation, especially in the context of innovations such as biotechnology or nanotechnology.”
 
At the same time, they note, “a technology push is also in effect as universities more proactively transfer technologies to industry, in part owing to reduced public funding for research.”
 
The researchers noted that although 28 different academic journals published articles on university entrepreneurship since 1981, the distribution was skewed toward a few select journals. For instance, only eight journals published at least five papers, and those journals published 142 articles, or 82 percent of all output. Only five of those journals published at least 10 papers, and totaled 126 papers among them, or 73 percent of all articles surveyed.
 
Research Policy published the most articles, with 47, or 27 percent of all output. This was followed by the Journal of Technology Transfer (32 articles, 18 percent), Technovation (18 articles, 10 percent), the Journal of Business Venturing (16 articles, 9 percent), and Management Science (13 articles, 8 percent).
 
Most of these publications have evolved in response to the burgeoning field of technology transfer, the researchers write, and thus are still considered specialty, or niche, journals. On the other hand, there has been a dearth of research articles on university entrepreneurship in more established, prestigious journals in the areas of entrepreneurship, management strategy, and business venture, such as the Journal of Political Economy, Journal of Finance, and the Academy of Management Journal, the Kauffman report states.
 
“The general absence of university entrepreneurship research from the most prestigious journals may be explained by its embryonic stage in the life cycle of academic fields, where a 25-year history is considered a very short time when compared with, for example, the 50-year history of strategy or the more than 225-year history of economics,” the Kauffman report states.
 
“In addition, neither the broader field of entrepreneurship nor the more specialized area of university entrepreneurship possesses a dominant theoretical paradigm on which empirical research can coalesce. Indeed, these fields of inquiry have been described as being in a ‘chaotic pre-paradigmatic state of development.’”
 
The authors of the Kauffman report note that this nascent stage of research on university entrepreneurship is one of the major reasons that more than half of all studies surveyed relied on qualitative methods such as case studies, as opposed to econometric analyses based on quantitative data. They also attributed this phenomenon to the relative “difficulty of obtaining fine-grained (dynamic) data” on university entrepreneurship, though such data capture is becoming easier with more universities publishing yearly metrics on their entrepreneurial activities.
 
The Kauffman report also revealed that although the vast majority of research on university entrepreneurship has been atheoretical, “indicative of a field in the embryonic stage of development,” all articles published using some kind of dominant theoretical lens (34 articles, or 20 percent) were published after 1998, with 32 of these articles, or 94 percent, published since 2001.
 
“This latter observation is heartening, as the field clearly appears to be moving toward more theory-driven research, a trend that is reflective of the field’s increasing maturity,” the researchers write.
 
Treading Lightly
 
One area that the researchers did not address in their report is identifying the department affiliation of the scholars that have been publishing research articles on university entrepreneurship.
 
“We did not look into this with respect to the home departments,” Rothaermel told BTW. “We treaded very lightly, because this is very sensitive information and there are a lot of egos on the line. As we said in the report, this is a simple account and is a first look at this.”
 
However, Rothaermel said that a cursory examination of the authors reveals that they are primarily affiliated with economics departments, business schools, and in some cases, public policy departments.
 
“These are primarily academics,” Rothaermel said. “But this work is frequently done with the support of technology transfer offices, who provide data access. The offices themselves are generally not co-authors, but this kind of data cannot be accessed without institutional support.”
 
One of the risks that this type of research runs is a lack of objectivity, especially if researchers are studying the entrepreneurial activities of their own institutions, and particularly if the technology transfer offices are involved.
 
Rothaermel told BTW that he has heard such arguments before. However, he countered those arguments by saying that “keep in mind that these are all independent academics, and they’re fairly objective in what they write and how they write about it. While the data is given to them; nonetheless, this is not party-line research, so to speak. Some of it is actually very critical of what is happening at these institutions, and how things are done. I think we should give the academics credit in terms of the academic freedom that they’re using.”
 
Areas of Interest
 
The report states that four major research streams have emerged in the study of university entrepreneurship. These areas can be broadly categorized as articles that focus on the entrepreneurial research university as a whole, the productivity of technology transfer offices, the creation of new companies, and “environmental context” including “networks of innovation,” the report states.
 

”The collective scholarship on university entrepreneurship has … evolved to a point where it is ready to be published in many of the premier academic journals, and thus move beyond a niche field into the mainstream of scholarly debate.”

Of these, the entrepreneurial research university and the productivity of tech-transfer offices were studied the most frequently. Examples of questions raised in such research include: Why are some universities more entrepreneurial than others? What are the barriers to universities becoming more entrepreneurial? How can universities be more successful in entrepreneurial activities? How do entrepreneurial universities relate to entities outside the ivory tower?
 
“Not surprisingly, many scholars are attempting to resolve the conflicts that arise as universities become more entrepreneurial, joining the debates pertaining to the evolution of the traditional university mission and offering suggestions on how to address these issues,” the researchers write in the Kauffman report.
 
“Thus, studies of multilevel interactions across units of analysis attempting to explain university entrepreneurship appear to be an important avenue for future study,” the report states. “Research efforts in this regard can aid us in moving beyond understanding the individual pieces of the entrepreneurial university puzzle, and aid in a more holistic understanding of this complex and multifaceted process.”
 
Furthermore, the researchers argue, more “longitudinal analysis” using data that are more representative of the entire research university population is needed, as opposed to the widely used case study method or historical analyses, or quantitative analyses within the setting of a single university. “The results would be less idiosyncratic to individual, often premier, research universities,” the researchers write.
 
Rothaermel expanded on that point, telling BTW that at Georgia Tech, he has had little difficulty obtaining data on university entrepreneurship. “What is very difficult to do, and I have tried it for years, is to convince multiple universities to make data accessible across institutions,” he said. “I have studies on incubators, but I only have Georgia Tech data. I went to other institutions, and said, ‘Look, we have these data, can we mention this, and this would be all confidential.’ And they’re very reluctant to do that.
 
“What we see today is that the elite institutions – the MITs, Stanfords, and Georgia Techs – have these kinds of scholars that can do this stuff,” he added. “But we don’t really have a lot of studies looking across institutions, which will be very important to inform public policy.”
 
In terms of research on the productivity of tech-transfer offices, the researchers found that many scholars differ in their definition of a TTO’s role. While some studies argue that a TTO’s role includes establishing a link between the university and industry, others suggest that scientists in universities and industry already engage in formal and informal networks, thus limiting the TTO’s role in facilitating these relationships, the Kauffman report states.
 
Furthermore, the Kauffman report revealed a “stark divergence” between opinions on what constitutes TTO performance. While some scholars have reached a consensus that acceptable measures of TTO performance include the number of licensing agreements and licensing revenues, other researchers emphasized alternative measures, such as number of invention disclosures and the amount of sponsored research agreements.
 
The Kauffman Foundation is an entrepreneurial education and research center based in Kansas City, Mo. Its goal is to advance entrepreneurship and improve education in the US. It is the 26th largest foundation in the US with an asset base of approximately $2 billion, according to the foundation’s website.
 
In recent months the foundation has increasingly focused on entrepreneurship among US universities. In April, it released a report entitled “Commercializing University Innovations: A Better Way,” funded by the National Bureau of Economic Research, that created a stir in the tech-transfer community when it suggested that universities focus too much “homerun” patenting and licensing activities (see BTW, 4/16/2007 and 4/23/2007).

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