Academic Entrepreneurship: What Is It And How Will It Change Academia?

academic entrepreneur - what is an academic entrepreneur

Academic entrepreneurship. It sounds like an oxymoron, right?

When you hear the term “entrepreneur”, maybe it conjures up mental images of some slick, fast-talking hustler trying to sucker you into a “limited-time opportunity”.

When it comes to academia, you probably – and rightly so – think of careful, deliberate, logical, level-headed, rational thinking, all of which are required to be an effective academic.

But is it really possible to meld academia and entrepreneurship into an effective career path?

The short answer is yes, and you don’t need to compromise the principles you hold dear to practice academic entrepreneurship either.

What is an academic entrepreneur?

An academic entrepreneur is someone with niche expertise and a strong desire to use that expertise to make a difference in the world.

They understand that if they are able to reach a wider audience with their expertise, they can have a much wider influence than they are able to achieve within a university setting alone.

They are innovators and risk takers who are looking for new opportunities to take control of their work-life balance and to achieve personal fulfilment in the process. 

Changing of the guard

The oldest university is nearly 1000 years old. For the first 950 years of universities’ existence they had a clear role in the generation and curation of new knowledge. However, the university’s monopoly over knowledge has eroded rapidly with the expansion of the technological revolution.

The internet has effectively chloroformed the proverbial ‘gatekeeper’ and information and knowledge are now widely democratised. Even expertise that was once the unique domain of professionals is being disaggregated, repackaged and sold off as micro-credentials.

While anyone with a loud voice and a large following can have influence, the academic community has been slow to embrace the opportunities to engage directly with the public.

This has coincided with a tsunami of online mis- and disinformation, rising populism, and a growing anti-science movement including politically endorsed climate change denial, the varying and politicised responses to COVID, and the banning of the teaching of evolution in some schools.

When we ask academics what made them become an academic, the almost universal response is “to make a difference”. Yet academic work is becoming increasingly standardised and bureaucratised in ways that make it difficult to effect a real impact on the public.

With the livelihoods of so many academics under threat due to COVID-19, and the threats to public intellectual debate (i.e., the proliferation of unqualified influencers with large followings), there is an urgent need, in fact an OBLIGATION, to bullhorn academics’ voices to a mainstream audience.

Increasing direct dialogue between academics and the public has the potential to inform public debate and deliver tangible benefits to the end users through the delivery of high quality, relevant, authentic, credible, trustworthy messages that have not been curated, depersonalised, or corporatised.

The need for academic entrepreneurship

As the global communications landscape continues to evolve with every technological advancement, so too must academia adapt to remain relevant.

Academic entrepreneurship is necessary:

  • To create a paradigm shift in academic information dissemination
  • To overcome the asymmetry of poor-quality information dissemination on social media
  • To create new outlets for academics / experts to increase their impact by sharing their work with a wide range of audiences
  • To create new opportunities for academics in an uncertain higher education environment

Where are the academics during this (d)evolution?

Once upon a time, an academic appointment was a job for life. Now, nearly half of all university employees are casual (even more in some universities).

At least 20,000 academic jobs (or nearly 10% of the academic workforce, including casuals) are expected to be lost in Australia as a result of COVID.

In Australia, more than 10,000 PhDs are awarded every year, but fewer than half of those will work in the university sector.

The overall landscape of academia is such that, with increasingly scarce funding for research and university budget cuts, many academics and new PhD graduates are facing an uncertain future.

And while social and mainstream media have become free-for-all gladiator pits of mis- and disinformation that speak straight to peoples’ emotional heartstrings, academics pay upwards of $AUD3,000 to publish their findings in open access academic journals whose audiences are largely other academics – using technical academic language that is not easily understandable and applicable by the layperson.

A well-known challenge of academic outputs is that once they have been developed they often fail to translate their value and practical applicability to the end user. By this point, unless academic voices are prominent in the intermediate, anti-science narratives can take center stage and hog the spotlight to the exclusion of evidence-based messaging.

Privileging of things over thoughts

An important challenge faced by the academic community is how to value academic outputs. As a result, society tends to privilege outputs that can be more easily measured, such as direct commercial products like patents and (arguably) more tangible outputs such as health and medical research, at the expense of knowledge generation and other social benefits.

Yet, university researchers do far more than produce patents and scientific breakthroughs, the impact of which can be difficult to measure. The devaluing of social sciences in Australia is a reflection of this challenge.

Professor Simon Chapman AO

Professor Simon Chapman – Credit: ABC

The academic entrepreneur stands behind their messages and becomes the ambassador for their public promotion.

An excellent example of a successful academic entrepreneur is sociologist and Public Health Advocate, Emeritus Professor Simon Chapman AO who has been an outspoken campaigner against tobacco.

Not your typical entrepreneur, Professor Chapman has maintained a strong and credible academic career.

He has been the face for the international anti-tobacco movement, which he has led by directly communicating with the end users – government, through advocacy, the tobacco lobby, and the public through mainstream publications and messaging.

His advocacy has had an international impact on tobacco packaging and legislation. The public health impact of this work alone has resulted in enormous financial savings and gains in societal health benefits.

What differentiates Professor Chapman from other academics? Rather than hiding behind peer reviewed outputs, he has taken those messages, repackaged those for a range of audiences and personally projected those in a way that has created his own identity in the anti-tobacco arena (and other areas of public health advocacy) to drive change.

He now actively uses his platform (his website) as a way to challenge misinformation around a wide range of public health issues.

The importance – and value – of promoting your public messages can be seen in the popularity of TED talks. Very few widgets or scientific discoveries frontline the top-rated TED talk lists.

Instead, we see messages that have an impact on the human condition – for example, the importance of sleep, that universal topic – love, racism, and education. Any complex scientific messages are presented in ways that enable people to relate to them.

What makes a good academic entreprenur?

Dr Brene Brown

Brene Brown
Dr Brene Brown – Credit: brenebrown.com

Brene Brown is another excellent example of a thriving academic entrepreneur from a social science background. She trained as a social worker and undertook doctoral research using a grounded theory approach to understanding professional helping.

While this wasn’t her magnum opus (that came later), her work on shame resilience in the mid-2000s led to her well-known 2010 TED talk and publications on vulnerability (incidentally, at the time of writing, her TED talk has been viewed over 50 million times!).

Brene offers a lot of things that make her the perfect academic entrepreneur.

First, she has tapped into aspects of the human condition – vulnerability and shame – that affect all of us. She has delved into it in a way that creates new understanding on the topic.

As an academic, she has examined and repackaged the concept of vulnerability in a way that has credibility, but she has resold that to a mainstream audience through her books.

But more than just telling the story of her own research, Brene is part of that story. She shares the story of her own challenges (alcoholism) and demonstrates her own vulnerability in telling that story. We don’t just love Brene Brown’s message, we actually love Brene Brown!

While still holding a professorial post, Brene has created her own brand, embodied in all of her outputs, including her blog post, which also includes podcasts, a blog, sales of her books, and a collection of downloadable resources based on her work. Notice that the title of her website is “Brene Brown” – she does not use other branding or labeling. She is the brand.

This highlights the next important feature of an academic entrepreneur. It is more than merely repackaging your information, you and your delivery of that information, tools or products become an important component of that package.

The point being that as academics we, or at least ‘the system’, tend to underplay the impact that our knowledge and information based expertise can have, while privileging technically based outputs. We propose that the academic entrepreneurship can shift this imbalance.

It is very much a case of evolve or dissolve, and unless universities and academics are willing to play a more active role and engage in ‘trench warfare’ and speak directly to the public (and not filter information through third-party media outlets), the so-called influencer culture will continue to overshadow important academic contributions to public discourse.

What else can academic entrepreneurship approach offer academics?

Consider the end-value of your research, not just the process

A luxury of research that tends to be unavailable in the business world is the ability to spend time focusing on different ways to do things. While this is an important and valuable perspective, the entrepreneurial mindset forces you to look at your end user’s pains and gains and the best way to use your solution to solve their problems.

Real-time development

Academics strive for perfection before they take their ideas to the market whereas entrepreneurs iterate from a minimum viable product to refine and develop their product in and with the market.

Obviously this approach is not appropriate for every field (who wants their vaccines developed through in-market iteration?), but many academic outputs take years to product and are, in some cases, less relevant or even obsolete by the time they are completed.

Speed

Entrepreneurs move quickly because their livelihood often depends on it. Academics are mired by layers of bureaucracy, the steep learning curve and course requirements of doctoral students, and other organisational requirements that have the potential to slow progress.

Embracing failure

Entrepreneurs openly learn from and embrace failure, whereas academics have a tendency to hide it – reinforced by a culture of failing to publish negative results.

See your research outputs through a different lens

Looking at your research outputs through a more commercial lens forces you to think more broadly and creatively, and to solve technical issues that might not emerge in a smaller-scale lab environment.

An important focus of the entrepreneur is having real engagement with end users to have a deep understanding of the market needs and imperatives.

How can academics reframe their expertise to have greater impact?

To be an academic entrepreneur you will have:

  1. A unique, clear brand and online identity
  2. A clear strategy on how to reach your audience, to make a direct contribution to society through your work and expertise
  3. The potential to earn an income directly from your academic outputs
  4. An effective online presence
  5. Books and / or other relevant products that give you credibility and ownership over your academic field

Take home message

In closing, it’s important to understand that effective academic entrepreneurship requires, above all, a new mindset.

You simply cannot solve today’s problems using yesterday’s thinking and ways of doing business.

While there are clearly strengths to academic systems such as peer-review before publication, it is what you do with your outputs to get them directly into the public consciousness that matters most.

Instead of purely focusing on achieving metrics within your higher education institution, you must consider the importance of your work to the end user.

Rather than seeing your peer-reviewed publication as the final product, you see it as a tool to start a new discussion with the people or groups that may benefit from your findings.

Instead of focusing on the next output, the next grant and/or the next publication, you must reflect on the benefits of your entire body of work and how you can meaningfully use this to benefit society.

Start small, look outward, own your outputs and be a brave ambassador for the difference that you want to make to society.

3 thoughts on “Academic Entrepreneurship: What Is It And How Will It Change Academia?”

  1. This is really interesting. I am an academic, social scientist, who is in the final week of a fixed term contract. I am really looking to do something different and this looks like it might be worth a try. I created a blog as part of my PhD, and have created a YouTube video on educational testing via a my university. I think this could be the way to go. But where do I start, and how do I survive with no salary?

    1. Hi Judy,
      Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. I can certainly appreciate your situation and I understand that feeling of being out on a limb without a safety net. The first step is to determine an exact dollar amount for how much you need to survive each month and then figure out some ways to meet those needs (it’s only temporary). It’s extremely difficult to try and be creative when you’re feeling stressed and worrying about the bottom line.

      Once you’ve got your basic expenses met, consider your academic branding and how you can package and position yourself for your audience(s). You’ll need to be clear on who your audience(s) is/are, what they want or need, what their questions are, their pain points etc. If you can offer genuine solutions to solve their problems, answer their questions, or relieve their pain, then you’re on the right track.

      Think about how you can build a community around your cause. If you can get others with similar interests helping each other, then you are well and truly on the right track. It’s about being of service to others. While there are plenty of businesses out there SOLELY focused on making a buck (and yes, you need to generate revenue to survive), the income will come when you’re operating from a deeper place. It is also what’s going to get you out of bed in the morning and help you push through those tough times when you might not be feeling motivated.

      You mentioned that you created a blog as part of your PhD and also a YouTube video on educational testing. This is great! As I mention in my Blogging for Academics article (https://academicentrepreneur.org/blogging-strategies-for-academics/), it’s not only about posting pics of your breakfast. There is serious capacity to reach a huge audience. When I started blogging back in the mid 2000s, it was in its relative infancy and I didn’t fully appreciate the relevance at that time, nor did I expect blogging would become a serious business in later years. As of this writing, my consumer health advocacy articles have reached millions of readers and generated significant media exposure and opportunities over the years. But the key is putting out great content that people are looking for and WANT to read. As I said above, scratch their itch, answer their questions, solve their problems, alleviate their pain and you are well on your way! All of this works for video blogging as well. The formula is all about being of service to others.

      Feel free to reach out to us if we can answer any questions. We’ve just launched Academic Entrepreneur and are building our resources library and e-courses for academics who want to be more proactive in taking charge of their careers on their own terms. Check out some of our other articles here: https://academicentrepreneur.org/articles/

      Hope this helps!

      Kind regards,
      Bill

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