Starting Up But Staying Put

By Robert Brown

The Big Bang Theory TV show
Photo: CBS/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Particle physics à la "The Big Bang Theory"

RW Brown
Photo: Claire Bonnett/John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Publications have impact on investors.

Starting a business occupies your mind 24/7, but a faculty position is very much a full-time job, too. Nonetheless, there is a path to getting the satisfaction of doing both. It requires a team effort but maintains individual pride. As a Case Western Reserve University professor spearheading both an entrepreneurial master’s program and an applied physics PhD program, I have mentored four-dozen master’s, doctoral, and postdoctoral students in industrial work, been closely involved with a number of successful start-up manufacturing companies, and spent three decades collaborating with industry. Based on this experience, I believe faculty can have viable entrepreneurial careers without leaving the university and without an initial invention. The path is facilitated by our teaching, and the two most important words are “former students.”

The entrepreneurship pathway follows a tenure track. The professor begins her career in some specialty — it doesn’t matter which — and establishes credentials. She builds a network of former students, particularly in the business world, enhanced by media. This network offers opportunities pertaining to underserved markets, innovations, and companies’ outsourcing needs. Importantly, business partners are identified. Today’s university, increasingly encouraging entrepreneurship, is a source of advice for business and technology, as well as programs to teach creativity and, what is often distinguished from it, innovation.

Whatever Your Background
We tell students they can have successful careers — if they follow their passion and work hard. This advice can help us to be entrepreneurs, and not only in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) but in art, too. (Full STEAM ahead!) Author Malcolm Gladwell says that mastery of a skill requires 10,000 hours of practice. We can put that time into disciplines that include social sciences and humanities. My background began with a “big bang,” where a particle physics PhD enabled me to understand Sheldon’s whiteboard formulas and build computational muscles. A network of students and collaborators included researchers at Fermilab and CERN carrying out experiments connected to our work. Such basic research seemed impractical, but ended up connecting well with industry.

An early connection came from former students employed in industry who recruited me for product modeling. New students were trained as the modeling opportunities grew, and we created an imaging course and an industrial PhD track. With a healthy thirty-year run serving engineering and science departments as well as industry, two-dozen industrial physics PhD’s have graduated, many with entrepreneurial bents. Together with burgeoning business collaborations, groundwork was laid for our start-ups.

In support of collaborations, we pioneered an award-winning professional master’s Science and Technology Entrepreneurship Program (STEP) serving physics, mathematics, biology, and chemistry departments, and now in its fifteenth year with dozens of alumni. (Think of an MBA on high-tech steroids.) Program students have capstones involving a start-up company or an internship in industry.

How We Define Stay-Put Entrepreneurship
While dictionary definitions refer to starting a business at some risk, a Harvard quotation [1] called “the best answer ever,” says “Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity beyond resources controlled.” Frankly, you can finance yourself and remain entrepreneurial, but outside help is usually needed. Tethered to the university, our partnered definition requires the small but critical change: A full-time-faculty entrepreneur is one who collaboratively pursues opportunity beyond the resources controlled. We need a full-time business partner.

ESTEAM: Creativity and Innovation
Are entrepreneurs made, not born? In the proposal [2] that incorporates entrepreneurship in an “ESTEAM” K-16 education (or K-18 with a STEP step), we suggest including professors as students. As noted, universities comprise mentors, advisors, partners, funding sources, and accounting help; programs like STEP study the “valley of death” (running out of money between incubation and commercialization), valuation (product/service pricing), marketing, salesmanship, and the creativity behind the inventions.  

9 dot puzzle image
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thinking outside the box?

Creativity has been defined as “inside the box” in an approach [3] called “Systematic Inventive Thinking” (SIT). Consider system components, like in a computer. To improve it, the SIT rule is to avoid considering any outside, unconnected components; it is not creative to go “outside the box,” which is to combine unrelated systems.

Consider a square of nine dots and the familiar puzzle of connecting all dots with only four straight lines along one path. Needing external intersections is usually regarded as a metaphor for thinking outside the box. Yet when students are told to consider outside intersections, most still fail to solve it. SIT suggests it is not thinking outside the box but rather the original straight-line components applied in a novel way. The famous outside-the-box example is actually an inside job.

To use SIT, make a list of the system parts and perform one or more of the following operations: SUBTRACT one of the parts, REARRANGE them, COPY one but with a new role for it, make a NEW TASK for one, and/or find NEW RELATIONSHIPS among them. Afterwards, assess the benefits of the new system, and ask, “Is it possible?” Many examples of all five techniques can be found. Although we have not been conscious of SIT, we can find connections to our work, and, besides, “staying inside the box” resonates as a metaphor for an entrepreneur staying at the university.

STEP focuses on “innovation,” which includes inventiveness and commercialization. It emphasizes combining the acronym [4] NABC — the Needs (the problems), Approach (to show feasibility), Benefits per costs, Competition — with the “Champion,” an outsider who benefits from or rhapsodizes over your endeavor. As satisfied customers, OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) have been champions for us. With this background, we turn next to the results.

The Rest of the Story: Six Key Points
  1. Ideas for business? Many ideas come from a collaboration on a new product or a problem with a present product. Industry’s need to out-source work provides opportunities for start-ups.
  2. Multiple start-ups. A former student came back to co-start an award-winning radiofrequency-coil manufacturing business nine years ago, growing it to 120 employees. Another mentee was likewise the brains and brawn behind a company to make the whole MRI system, now with over 100 employees and $100M in investment; a different former student was the key technologist in a new image-guided radiotherapy company. We have formed a partnership with one more new company making high-temperature superconducting MRI systems. My roles have been co-founder, recruiter, the aforementioned “Champion” in attracting investors, grant writer, and doing the myriad tasks sprinkled all over this essay. Dozens of former students are employees of these start-ups.
  3. Patenting, Publishing, and Proposals. Start-ups need intellectual property (IP) to protect products and buttress their valuation. Co-sharing IP depends on whose facilities and funding have been utilized, but schools are looking at this touchy issue more broadly now, recognizing the value in nurturing businesses. Interestingly, patenting may be delayed to avoid divulging trade secret details. (However, U.S. patent offices are now looking for more general “blue-sky” submissions.) To deal with patent infringement, an entrepreneur may undergo a legal deposition (i.e., merciless grilling by aggressive lawyers). It is really painful, but if you prepare for it like a final exam you can win that battle.
Publications are good for business. For example, radiologists influence their hospitals’ purchasing; they read clinical studies in journals highlighting new hardware. Publications are also critical for successful grant writing and funding proposals. Funding agencies with a forest of acronyms (SBIR/STTR/NIH/NSF/DOE etc.) nowadays support new business ventures. In this regard, publication of a 900-page textbook has had significant impact on reputation-building among investors and grant submissions. (My co-authors? Who else but former students!)
  1. What about the Administration? A conflict-of-interest management plan is needed to declare any outside compensation, for recusal from university connections to your company, to acknowledge personal stakes in publications pertaining to its products, and so forth. Even if a professor forsakes salary, any ownership has to be declared as a conflict of interest.
The frequent faculty complaint of inadequate help in writing grants, let alone starting a company, is well-known. Universities are increasing efforts to address these systemic issues.
  1. Tenure Tracks. Will faculty entrepreneurs get tenure? Entrepreneurship can wait until tenure is earned, as I chose to do. But assistant professors can and do have business ideas and take on the juggling act. Someday, entrepreneurship may be a standard tenure track.
  2. Risks versus Benefits. Entrepreneurship may force a career change, leaving faculty reluctant to try it. Much history beyond mine has shown, however, that the partnered faculty entrepreneur can successfully combine the new and old careers.
The Stay-Home Message
In summary, the following steps, I believe, can be taken to manage the risk for the partnered faculty entrepreneur:
  • Obtain a tenure-track position in traditional STEAM disciplines.
  • Master a discipline anywhere in STEAM, training students as you go.
  • Grow a network of former students, colleagues, and collaborators in scholarship/research.
  • Learn from ESTEAM mechanisms: internships, business schools, master’s programs, etc.
  • Create a commercialization venture from connections with industry, networks, SIT, etc.
  • Choose a business partner from your network (or have them choose you) who can lead.
  • Get help inside or outside the university to write business plans, determine shares, manage IP, get financing, and … learn how to charge for your product/service.
  • Establish a conflict of interest management plan with the university.
  • Contribute as an interim president, recruiter, researcher, grant writer, advisory board member, and so forth.
  • Spend time consistent with the university’s policy of allowing other outside activities such as consulting or book writing.
  • And you can gain the pride of ownership, of creating new jobs — and of maintaining the rewarding closeness of your former students.

ACKNOWLEDGMENT: Adapted from a keynote speech, Third Lubar-CEAS Joint Workshop on Entrepreneurship & Technology Management, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 2014.

Robert W. Brown is Institute Professor and Distinguished University Professor in the physics department of Case Western Reserve University. He partners with a dozen manufacturing companies in a long career of industrial design, applied research, and entrepreneurial physics education.

  1. E. Schurenberg, “What’s an Entrepreneur? The Best Answer Ever,”
  2. S. Nambisan, “Make Entrepreneurship Part of Education,”
  3. D. Boyd and J. Goldenberg, Inside the Box: A Proven System of Creativity for Breakthrough Results (Simon and Schuster, 2013).
  4. C. Carlson and W. Wilmot, Innovation: The Five Disciplines for Creating What Customers Want, NSF Workshop: The Scientific Basis of Individual and Team Innovation and Discovery, August, 2006

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January 2015 (Volume 24, Number 1)

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