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Impact of Social Sciences – The Tough Life of an Academic Entrepreneur: Innovative commercial and non-commercial ventures must be encouraged.

17 Feb 2016

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Image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain)

Academic entrepreneurs are a valuable asset for universities. However, most academic entrepreneurs are forced to live double lives. Performance assessments rarely factor in their experimental and unconventional activities. Asit Biswas and Julian Kirchherr outline incentives needed to unleash the creative potential of scholars for the overall benefit of society.

Cheli Cresswell’s last meeting with her PhD assessors was odd. Her assessors, renowned scholars at the University of Oxford, were eager to discuss with her the scientific papers she ought to write in order to obtain her doctorate. However, Cheli only wanted to talk about her app idea. It would let citizen scientists map stories about human-elephant-interactions from online sources. This visualization would then aid communities and environmentalists in developing more targeted conservation strategies. Cheli hopes this app will be an integral part of her doctoral thesis. Her assessors did not get it.

Cheli is a prime example of an academic entrepreneur. More and more policy-makers understand that academic entrepreneurs are a university’s most valuable asset. Indeed, many British universities now need to measure spin-offs per one-hundred students and staff. After all, newly founded firms account for nearly all net new job creation, according to studies of the Kauffman Foundation. Academics (directly) contribute little to this job creation on average. According to one estimate from Sweden, less than 1 in 100 scholars per year quit academia in order to become full-time entrepreneurs. However, up to 16 percent of academics may run a part-time business which they founded. Several universities are already remarkably entrepreneurial. For instance, the Cambridge Science Park, Europe’s longest-serving and largest center for commercial research, at the University of Cambridge counts 1,400 companies and 40,000 jobs. Alumni from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have created 25,800 companies employing 3.3 million people.


Asit Biswas (National University of Singapore) is one of the world’s leading authorities on environmental and water policy. He is the co-founder of the Third World Centre for Water Management in Mexico, and Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lee Kuan Yew School for Public Policy, National University of Singapore. A distinguished academic, author/editor of over 80 books, his work has been translated into 37 languages. He advises 19 governments at Prime Ministerial or Ministerial levels.

Julian Kirchherr (University of Oxford) is a doctoral researcher at the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford. Prior to joining the University of Oxford, Kirchherr was a management consultant at McKinsey & Company advising governments in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. At the age of 20, he was elected as a City Councilor in Werl, Germany, and also served as a County Councilor in Soest, Germany.

Julian Kirchherr

Julian Kirchherr

doctoral researcher at the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford

Asit K Biswas

Asit K Biswas

Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. National University of Singapore, Singapore